Monthly Archives: June 2013

I’m Lovin’ It!

Nothing fills me with the perfect, incongruous blend of soul-crushing apathy and molten hatred more than a stack of ungraded essays.  As I type this, they sit there, mocking me, tangible evidence of my procrastination and laziness.  Even if I try to shove them down into the depths of my work bag with the balled up tissues and dried-out markers (possibly some anglerfish as well) I know they are there.

This is what I imagine living at the bottom of my work bag, guys.  It's been a while since I've cleaned it out.

This is what I imagine living at the bottom of my work bag, guys. It’s been a long while since I’ve cleaned it out.

The transparent specter of them drifts into my awareness as I try to enjoy that gray, liminal space that exists between procrastination and grudging acquiescence to my responsibilities.  I’m the real life version of this pretend man who who remembers all of his responsibilities just as he is about to enjoy himself.

Of course, last week I mentioned the predominant reason I dread grading:  some essays are so dishearteningly unreadable I would have more luck deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs than trying to slog through such bastardizations of the English language.  But the other, less demoralizing reason I approach grading with complete mental lethargy is that most of the time it’s just. So. Boring.  I mean really, REALLY boring.  Sometimes, before I’ve even finished the first sentence of an essay, I’m already weeping figurative tears over the monotony of repeatedly swallowing so much watery tripe.  It’s like trying to listen to Top 40’s radio dreck – everything sounds the same, it all sounds terrible and people keep insisting on rhyming the word ‘life’ with ‘strife’ or ‘minute’ with…wait for it… ‘MINUTE’ (I’m looking at you, Beyonce).

It begins with a dull title:

– Essay 1

– Argument Essay

– Global Warming

– Essay Final Draft

– Obesity

It continues with an even more lackluster opening sentence:

–          In today’s society, global warming is a big issue.

–          Since the dawn of time, people have been eating.

–          What is education?  Education is. . .

–          Pictures can tell us many different things.

–          Nowadays, technology is everywhere.

–          Dictionary.com defines marriage as. . .

–          In this essay, I’m going to talk about. . .

At this point, I will stop and channel my inner Lucille Bluth as I comment aloud This does not bode well.

My hero.

My hero.

It culminates in the ubiquitous closing phrase, “In conclusion.”

Multiply this by 80 essays at around 2,000 words each, and by the time I am finished my brain is trying to escape through my ears so that it can swan-dive into an empty swimming pool.

So at the end of the day after the essays have attached themselves to my soul and sucked out my remaining life force like an army of parasitic lampreys, I become a hollow shell of a person.  I can’t think.  I can’t move.  So what do I do?  I mentally gorge myself on terrible TV shows – my version of cramming three McDonald’s Big-Mac combos down my gullet.

In his stand-up special Mr. Universe, comedian Jim Gaffigan proclaims, “I’m tired of people acting like they’re better than McDonald’s. You may have never set foot in a McDonald’s, but you have your own McDonald’s.  You know, maybe instead of eating a Big Mac you read US Weekly. Hey, that’s still McDonald’s. It’s just served up a little different.” Gaffigan is alluding to the shame-fueled, back-alley, love-hate relationship America has with McDonald’s, which serves up billions of burgers to patrons each day but is promptly vilified as the incarnation of American excess and gluttony – the Whole Foods anti-Christ.  Gaffigan compares our remorseful, clandestine love for Mickey D’s with our covert love of celebrity gossip:  “Scarlet Johansson got a haircut? Why do I give shit? Because it’s McDonald’s. And it feels good going down.”

If you haven’t watched this yet, stop reading right now and watch it.  Seriously.  Why are you still reading this?  He’s way funnier than I am, guys, trust me.

America’s dirty little McDonald’s secret is evidence of the universal need for a guilty pleasure – something that we know is bad for us but that “feels good going down.”  It’s our McDonald’s, served up in a variety of media.

Mother of God!  This is the original Ronald McDonald.

Hello there children!  I’m the original Ronald McDonald!  Would you like nightmares with that?

Possibly we are self-sabotaging, subconsciously punishing ourselves for falling into the lives we always derided when we were idealistic, college-bound, know-it-alls.  In the end we chide ourselves with reminders that these guilty pleasures are not the life choices we should be making, but in a way I think they might be.

After all, guilty pleasures have helped me survive being an adjunct.  After a stressful day at work, my brain feels like over-cooked risotto or a slice of bread left to bloat in dingy dishwater. After a hellishly long day, all I want to do is forget that it ever happened, and to do that, I need blissful Elysium, sweetest respite – my McDonald’s.  For me, this happens to be bad television – crime shows with clever quips, unrealistically-advanced technology and masterful ‘pensively-removing-of-or-putting-on-the-sunglasses’ action;

Magnificent.

Magnificent.

reality shows about pushy, pudgy, stage parents shellacking their children with pounds of makeup;

Monstrous.  Terrifying.

Monstrous. Terrifying.

shows about ancient Alien astronauts coming to Earth and building Stone Henge, whispering tips in Hitler’s ear.

Batshit.

Batshit.

While Faust lies unread on my nightstand, I lie in a puddle on my couch and allow my McDonald’s to wash over me like a polluted wave filled with Wal-Mart bags and diapers, sweeping me out to sea.

My husband once asked me, a look of confusion and possibly horror on his face, “Why are you watching that?” With a sleepy, crooked grin and half-lidded eyes I told him, “It makes my brain feel like cheese whiz – so smooth and gooey.”

I like that feeling.  Most of the day I feel like one giant, dry, blood-shot eyeball.  For a couple of hours in the evening I savor my McDonalds, and looking forward to it gets me through the day.  It helps me to grit my teeth politely while a student asks me why I didn’t ‘give’ him/her an A.  It’s the comforting light at the end of a tunnel lined with poorly written essays about how marijuana should be legalized because “it cures cancer!” It allows me to briefly forget about the cavity I can’t afford to have filled because my paltry income and lack of insurance won’t cover it.  It softens the sharp edges of my frazzled nerves, like a salty, fatty, cardboard sleeve of McDonald’s fries might subdue the gnawing bite of physical hunger.

Do I regret it afterward?  Usually.  I experience a momentary panic as I think of all the tasks I could have completed in that same amount of time (grading, planning, reading something musty and challenging).  The mountain of responsibilities seems to loom even larger once I’ve crumpled up the wrappers and walked across the sticky, linoleum floors of my escape back out into the sunlight.  So why do I do it?  Because some days are like running the last mile of a marathon, uphill, while Lakitu the Mario cloud-turtle

This. Little. Bastard.

This. Little. Bastard.

whips spiky koopas or batteries at me and Gilbert Godfried drives beside me on a golf-cart while narrating the Twilight novels through a megaphone.  After such days, I need somewhere soft and cushy to land where I don’t have to talk, move or think.

(Apparently this ^ kind of exists.  Dear God why?!?)

Of course, I like to partake of my McDonald’s in moderation – not all day, every day.  Most of the time I exist on a healthy diet of esteemed literature and productivity (ha).  After all, if McDonald’s becomes your only source of nourishment. . . well, I guess you might make a documentary about it and call it Supersize Me.

 supersize me

But also, it won’t be good for you. At all. You’ll probably die or go on Maury where they will have to knock down a wall of your house to remove your sizable girth.

So I watch bad television sometimes, when I need it. It makes me feel sunny.  It breeds tolerance and patience.

Chances are, you indulge in your McDonald’s too.  Maybe it’s bad television.  Maybe it’s popping bubble-wrap for hours on end.  Maybe it’s licking and sealing a stack of empty envelopes.  Maybe it’s looking at pictures of puppies in pajamas on the internet.

Oh, hello there puppy.  I shall now make squeezy-hand cuddle motions at the screen.

Oh, hello there little floppy-puppy-face. I shall now make squeezy-hand cuddle motions at the screen.

Maybe it’s listening to Miley Cyrus or being a self-proclaimed Belieber.  Find it. Savor it.  Deny that you’re lovin’ it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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Word Salad and Ranging Furries

People with schizophrenia sometimes suffer from a condition known as schizophasia, a chaotic speech pattern composed of unrelated, illogical words and phrases.  It’s – well, it’s really sad, actually – a symptom of a destructive mental illness that will hopefully subside with treatment.  So what am I supposed to do when my otherwise mentally healthy students (so they say) seem to suffer from the same disease, but on paper?

Before I started teaching, I was under the impression that college freshmen would possess a certain amount of proficiency in using the English language.  After all, if they’ve made it to my class, then they’ve somehow managed to survive 13 years of prior education.  Surely, somewhere along the lines, some English teacher forced them to diagram sentences until their fingers bled and until they were mentally double-underlining the predicates in their friends’ speech.  Surely some maniacal high school teacher with a red pen went apeshit on their essays, frantically jabbing at the page until it resembled the aftermath of a Manson Family creepy crawl with ‘Helter Skelter’ scrawled in the white space.  I mean, these are the tenets of a model English education, right?  Torture and shame?

Oh, wishful thinking, that harlot of trickery!  I anticipated uninspiring prose and occasional misplaced commas.  I failed to anticipate that some of the students our admissions board calls “higher education ready” are unable to form even a single, coherent sentence.  It’s as if there’s a tiny goblin hiding in their brains feeding their sentences into a slap chop and then piecing them back together with bits of chewed up bubble gum.

Insert your sentences here.  I promise I'll be gentle.  You can trust me.

Insert your sentences here. I promise I’ll be gentle. Don’t you trust me?

They can’t even produce writing at the level of a  fourth-grader reciting a ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’ essay (I got a new dog.  I named him Merkin. I played ball with him.  We had fun.)

In my first semester of teaching, I had a student I’ll call David.  His writing was so dreadfully slap-chopped together, I thought for sure that it couldn’t be real.  At first, I thought my boss had planted a fake student in my class, like a suspicious parent who uses one of those nanny-cam teddy bears to make sure the kids aren’t getting roofied, stuffed into the spin cycle of the washing machine or duct-taped to a chair.

I can see into your soul.

I can see into your soul, and I will eat it if you transgress.

Here is an example of what David’s writing looked like:   “I was a kid, little I loved bear going four after with him every day with him after looking school the time pie expansion.”  It looked like a sentence at first glance, but closer inspection revealed a monstrosity.  It was like that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Cameron looks a little too closely at a Seurat painting:

From far away, it looks beautiful, serene, lucid, but up close it is a horrifying mess.  Every sentence in his essay would look like this, so that by the time I’d finished reading the first paragraph, I thought was schizophrenic or that I was having some kind of petit-mal seizure.  I asked my husband to read over the essay to confirm that I was not, in fact, going to die from a brain aneurysm (I had already WebMD’d myself into a state of hypochondriac paranoia and was 97% convinced that I had a brain aneurysm or a brain tumor – possibly lupus or flesh-eating bacteria).

Clearly this student had a problem at a most fundamental level.  He spoke very clearly and did not have a registered disability, but a chimpanzee sitting at a typewriter could produce more meaningful work.  My fellow adjuncts and I had been forbidden by our department chair from teaching basic grammar in the classroom; after all, we were teaching college students and should be focusing on higher-level writing issues.  Of course, this directive was coming from a guy who dressed like Danny Zuko in the final scene of Grease, talked like Larry David and described himself as an anarchist (because if there is one profession that says ‘anarchy’ it is being the head of a department hierarchy).

A face-morphing website decided this is what the adult version of a child sired by both Larry David and John Travolta would look like.

A face-morphing website decided this is what the adult version of a child sired by Larry David and John Travolta would look like.

I tend to agree with his position on the issue, but I felt bad for David.  Yet, as much as I suggested that he visit the Tutoring Center or the Writing Center to get help outside of class, he did not do so and continued to fail each essay.  He truly seemed to think the one with the problem was me (in a way, I suppose he was right).

This was the most infuriating part of the experience.  He seemed completely shocked when I would return a paper to him with an F, explaining that it was incomprehensible.  It was as if I had insulted the Bard himself!  “I worked really hard on this!” he would exclaim, affronted, as if grades were based upon effort, not actual performance.  “I understand that,” I would tell him, “but it seems like you need some outside help.  Your sentence structure makes it impossible to read this.”  He seemed shocked, and I was shocked at his shock.  Had he never received criticism of his writing before?

Several other thoughts blitz-attacked my brain during this experience with David: A) How did this kid graduate high school?  Are the standards of public schools now so low that this complete lack of competence is acceptable?  B) What kind of college is this that admits students who are clearly so ill-prepared for college-level work?  C) This is the Composition 2 class, which means that this student has already taken and passed the prerequisite Composition 1 class.  How? Why? Is this an episode of the Twilight Zone?  Is Rod Serling here? I thought he was dead.  Is he a zombie? Can I get his autograph?

Imagine, if you will, a world where students who can't form a single intelligible sentence are praised by English teachers.  You just might be in...the Twilight Zone.

Imagine, if you will, a world where students who can’t write are the new literary geniuses. Failing is passing.  Lies are truth.  Does your brain feel like it’s being dissolved in sulfuric acid yet?  Then you just might be in…the Twilight Zone.

My bosses boss, someone, somewhere, some gleeful Buddy the Elf with a giant ‘approved’ stamp, had approved this student – had determined that this student possessed the necessary skills to succeed in college writing classes.  David was fed a lie.  Some misguided teacher had perpetuated it.  The student was drowning in his own ignorance and I had no idea how to help him.  His problems were so systemic, I didn’t even know where to begin.  So what did I do with David and others like him?

I...corrected them.

I…corrected them.

I didn’t “correct” them in the manner of Delbert Grady, the super creepy butler from The Shining, but judging from their reactions, you might have thought I was a psychopath who wanted to chop their bodies into pieces.  I failed them.

The next semester I ran into David again.  He was with his new comp. 2 teacher, who I recognized as his former Composition 1 teacher – the one who had previously passed him.  After making eye contact with me, David exclaimed to his teacher “That’s her!  That’s the teacher I’ve been telling you about!”  I realized I had been the subject of conversations between the two of them, and I imagined David storming into his class on the first day, poutily explaining to his buddy the teacher that some succubus had failed him.  For a second I thought they were going to go all West Side Story or Cobra Kai on me and put me in a body bag, but they didn’t.  We exchanged pleasantries and parted ways.  The cycle would continue.  The cycle, unfortunately, will continue still.

At least some of the word salad I have to choke down is actually somewhat beautiful, like bizarre, abstract poetry.  One student in particular, an older lady named Ruth, produced some of the loveliest nonsense I’ve ever read next to Faulkner or e.e. cummings:  “I love ocean the stars on the glistening watching the sparkling surface the moon.”  Of course, she failed the class, but I think she missed her calling.

Most of my other students can at least manage a bare minimum of written communication skills, but every now and then they amuse me with their carelessness or obliviousness.  I once asked students to define their idea of ‘success’ (which yielded very disheartening, but characteristically American, results).  One student wrote about how he wanted to get famous, make a lot of money and buy a lot of things (without much insight into what skills he would use to attain that end).  I think he just assumed that his natural charm and wit would throw him into the public eye and money would begin to rain down upon him.

Disregard females; acquire currency.

Disregard females; acquire currency.

He wrote, “When I think about those things and what I’m going to do to have those things, I just go into a daze and my body gets all hyped up and I just start pumping myself.”  It took me several long seconds of staring in disgust at the page to realize he wasn’t writing about masturbating to the thought of his own self-centered materialism.  He meant ‘pumping myself up’ as in ‘getting pumped’ or ‘getting hyped.’  But he wrote ‘pumping myself.’

Another student wrote about a fight she had with a friend and how she went into a ‘ranging furry.’  Naturally, this made me think of furries, also known as plushies – you know, grown men and women who dress in animal costumes and meet up in hotel rooms across the country to “do their taxes.”  I kind of hate that I know this, and I have 30 Rock to thank for the knowledge.

Hello there.  We are soul mates.  Would you like to watch as we destroy your childhood?

Hello there. We are soul mates. Would you like to watch as we destroy your childhood?

Also, do yourself a favor and DON’T do a Google image search for ‘furries’ or ‘adults in animal costumes.’  You will not be able to unsee, nor will you be able to erase that from your search history.

Perhaps television truly is rotting my brain.  I should have just imagined something like this when I read ‘ranging furry.’

Here are some sweet, innocent little lambs on the range.

Here are some sweet, innocent little lambs on the range.

Instead, I imagined plushophiles (which is also in my search history now).

Also, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the student was trying to write ‘raging fury.’

By now you might be thinking, “Wow, you sound like a terrible teacher.  I can’t believe you’re making fun of your students this way.  Have you no decency?  Teachers like you are the reason students don’t succeed.”

And to that, I can only say,

Bonus Round:  What words were these students trying to write (answers below):  Ordicale, Sicodic, Hertary.

Figured it out yet?

_

Answers:  Article, Psychotic, Hereditary

I am not Robin Williams. Please don’t stand on your desks.

Image

“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way!” proclaims Robin Williams’ character John Keating to a classroom of bored, blazered prep school boys in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.  As they line up to take in the view of dusty light fixtures and water-stained ceiling tiles from the top of Keating’s desk, he urges them to “break out” and find their own voices.  At the end of the film when Keating has been fired (apparently the stodgy administrators only authorize floor-standing and frown upon pretty young boys filling their heads with ideas), the students revolt!  Well, somewhat. Led by baby Ethan Hawke,

Image

(Here he is, looking SO moved)

they stand upon their desks, tearfully quoting Walt Whitman as a weary but satisfied Keating smiles to himself.  For the curious, you can watch the scene here:  The world looks very different from up here. In another memorable scene from the movie, Keating orders students to rip out pages from their textbooks that explain the mechanics of poetry, an act symbolic of his belief in bucking the system and generally being a badass in the beard-stroking world of circle-jerking academia. Of course, like anyone with a damn soul, I was touched the first time I saw this movie, tears welling in my eyes as I clasped my hands and thought, “Oh Yes, that’s right!  If I ever become a teacher, I will be exactly like that.  No worksheets and rules for this revolutionary.  I refuse to be a despot.  I renounce corduroy!”

Here’s the problem.  This is how such a scene might play out in a real classroom (keeping in mind that I teach at an urban community college):

Me: (After asking a student to read aloud an admittedly convoluted passage on understanding poetry) Excrement.  Rip out those pages, I tell you!

Student: You trippin’?

Me: Rip it! Burn it! Rip it! (hopping up and down like some rabid gollum)

Student:  I’m fin-a sell this back in a few weeks!  I ain’t rippin’ out no pages.  That’s bogue.

Me:  (Frantically) It’s excrement!  Don’t you see?!?

Student:  (No response) (long, awkward silence/shifting feet)

Me:  OK, well you don’t have to rip it, I guess, but it’s a pretty terrible passage, right guys?  Right?  Rules are stifling, huh?  I hope this hands-on lesson has inspired you to love poetry.

–    WEEKS LATER –

Student:  Why you make us read that poem for class today?  It ain’t make no sense.  I hate poetry.  It’s triflin’ doe.

Me:  Didn’t it move you?!?  Isn’t it powerful?!?  Remember the book-ripping times, guys? Guys? (eyes gleaming, maniacally).

Student:  Poetry is dumb.  You dumb. Go jump in front of a bus.

Me:…

Image

I will agree with the fictional Keating that the passage he orders his students to rip out is, in fact, excrement.  So many textbooks are basically expensive, hardback bricks of poo.  The problem is that academia is already a pretty mystifying experience.  Sometimes going to college is like being in the studio audience of a Japanese game show:  At first, it’s downright bewildering, but nobody else seems to be disturbed by it.  It’s as if they’ve been there forever and know something you don’t (like why that guy is lifting bricks with his nipple hooks and why he needs to have pantyhose over his face to do it, or why that woman is dressed like a transvestite chicken).

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(Or what in the blue hell is happening here)

Soon, after exhausting your mental faculties over the why of it, you quietly accept it, even though you still don’t understand it.  At all. You still long for a clear-cut explanation (a diagram? a flow chart?), but have lost all hope that you will ever have it.  Now you just hope to make it out alive, even if it means lubing yourself up with petroleum jelly (as the host has requested) and squirming out of the nostril of that giant, plaster nose on the stage.  You’ll go along with it as long as they let you leave afterward, dragging your pride behind you.

Ripping all the rules from the hands of desperate students who just want to understand is a bit like that.  “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively,” says the Dalai Lama, and who am I to question the one teacher to rule them all? (P.S. Apparently I’m not the only one who can’t say ‘Dalai Lama’ without thinking ‘Dali Llama.’Image

Oh, and Dolly Lama.)

Image

(Again – let’s just confirm how unoriginal we all are, or as Margaret Mead would put it, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”)

Maybe I just sound like an old schoolmarm who forces students to copy lines from the chalk board and gleefully swats disobedient palms with a ruler. I’ll never be John Keating, that’s for sure.  But even that band of ragamuffin psychopaths in Lord of the Flies adhered to some type of law (even if it involved pig heads on sticks and magic conch shells).  I’ve come to terms with the fact that four minutes of fake John Keating will probably inspire more people than my entire teaching career ever will.  Perhaps the world needs more John Keatings, but I can’t be one of them.  I’m just going to try to help students find their way out of the maze without starving to death or resorting to eating their own shoes.  Maybe schools need people like me, too (at least that’s what I tell myself so that I can drift peacefully into dreams about holding baby cheetahs at night).

Of course, Keating is not the only movie teacher to inject free-thought like a delicious jelly into the stale doughnut of formulaic curriculum.  Don’t forget about Michelle Pfeiffer.

1995_Dangerous_Minds_036

(Words, muthafuckas!  Have you heard of them?)

Here she is “livin’ in a gangsta’s paradise” in the based-on-real-life, 1995 movie Dangerous Minds.  A do-gooder, white, southern lady named Louanne attempts to inspire inner-city youth to turn away from their world of drugs and crime and turn, instead, to literature and writing.  The kids are champion scowlers and spit out angry, venomous expressions like “Snitches get stitches!” and “You don’t understand nothin’! You don’t come from where we live!” She even gets called “Chismosa” by a feisty Latina.  Yet, in one scene, in true 1990’s-vested glory,Image

(The beige vest – SO much sexier than the Lycra Catwoman suit)

the inevitable movie-breakthrough moment occurs while Pfeiffer quotes Bob Dylan (that’s right, Bob Dylan) – and the troubled students finally “get it,” (Dylan was right all along!  The answer IS blowing in the wind!) as lead guitars crescendo in the background.

If you are a teacher, especially if you are an adjunct, always remember this:  Teaching is not nearly as triumphant as Hollywood would lead us to believe.  Students are more frequently inspired by you years later, with the perfect vision of hindsight, rather than in the span of a semester (condensed into a couple of hours).  Just be careful not to concuss yourself as you repeatedly bang your head against the rock-hard wall of their obstinacy trying to make water flow out of it.

Remember that if you are ever tempted to force your students to deface their textbooks or stand on their desks in an attempt to shock them into inspiration, it will probably backfire (Think of all the potential for paper-cuts and broken ankles!  If my grandmother taught me anything in life, it’s that almost every situation can lead to blindness, choking, or my face freezing “that way” if I’m not careful enough).  Also, your students will probably think you are bat-shit crazy, and that never leads to positive course evaluations.  If you’re an adjunct, you’ll probably end up getting fired, too.  We’re a dime-a-dozen anyway, and there are twenty more Biff Lomans out there to take our places. In our case, though, there probably won’t be any shiny-faced, teen boys preparing to call us “Oh Captain, my Captain” as we walk out the door.

P.S. For all you fellow adjuncts out there, also remember that unless you pay a rock band to follow you around, there will be no inspirational guitar solos to mark your teaching achievements. (I hear these are standard issue with tenure, though, so maybe one day…)  Most adjuncts barely make enough money to feed themselves (and what meager provisions they manage to buy they must defend from the rodent-sized cockroaches that creep out of the walls of their studio apartments), so this is probably not financially feasible for you.  Hiring a mariachi band might be a slightly more affordable option for you, but BEWARE; mariachi bands are not nearly as effective for musically illustrating the zenith of your educational awesomeness.

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 (I mean, just imagine these guys emerging behind Michelle Pfeiffer in that pivotal scene.  No, actually, you know what, that would have been pretty awesome.  Holy shit, let’s make this happen.)