Why I do it
On Friday, my students turned in the final draft of their final paper. They had to write about an argument in DBC Pierre’s Booker-winning satire Vernon God Little. For instance, what is Pierre saying about masculinity in America? Or justice? Or the media? The book is profane and ridiculous, and I have more than a few problems with it; some of his writing is so insanely overwrought as to be unspecific, and his depiction of women and non-whites is problematic at best. But it’s a rich text, and my students really dig into it. I think they enjoy being able to say “fuckin” in their papers, in class, and in any discussion of their homework. (I like to imagine them at Thanksgiving dinner, their first since going to college, and them talking about the scene when Vernon and his pal Jesus discuss the philosopher Manual Cunt. Hee.)
Their previous paper was an analysis of the argument in John Bongaarts’ article “Population Growth and Global Warming.” Those papers sucked, because the article sucked–it was duller than a door-nail (whatever that means.) Everyone passed, and some of the papers were very well-written, but they were boring to read and boring to write. There was only one way to write the paper, and if they didn’t figure it out (or listen to me when I told them how to do it), their papers sucked. Never again will I assign that article. Hideous. Cruel. Et cetera.
The second papers have all been much, much better. One is crazy good, possibly better than a really, really good grad student paper. And it’s not plagiarized! Every one of my students wrote a better second paper, and I’m pretty sure they all wrote better papers because they stopped doing the bad stuff that I told them to stop doing. The students who wrote complicated, clunky sentences in their first paper wrote stream-lined, clear sentences in their second. For the most part. The students who avoided analysis in their first paper filled their second paper with analysis. When I was reading the second paper of a student who got a C+ on his first and I realized that the second paper was really, really good–well, the feeling was fabulous. These kids learned something. All of them. Which means I taught them something. All of them. It’s a thrilling feeling. Granted, it’s a somewhat narcissistic thrill, but better that I get it from teaching than from, say, trading hedge-funds.
Some of the papers are so good that I’ve been reading parts of them aloud to Rob and the other teachers. Of course, there are some doozy-ish mistakes; like the student who used the word “buzzard” when she meant “buzzer.” And doing it six times in one paragraph. But there are also sentences like “Though the traditional Judeo-Christian interpretation of salvation includes remuneration for sin, Vernon does not save others by sacrificing himself–he saves himself by sacrificing others.” And there’s the guy who starts out his paper with “It has come to my attention that American has a drug problem,” and then goes on to say that people are addicted to stock options and bling and Bentleys. Then he writes, “Now you may be thinking, ‘Heyyy…Gold and diamonds aren’t drugs!’ and you are an idiot because it’s just a metaphor.” Yeah, I lucked out this quarter. I had great students who wanted to do better and tried to do better, who wanted to learn something and so they did. As my old high school principal said, “It’s not aptitude. It’s attitude!”
This is why I went back to grad school. To teach. To have this feeling of accomplishment, of vicarious accomplishment. To have students to tell me that I did a great job. Now that’s cool. I just wish that everyone took their jobs as seriously. Some of my teachers suck donkeys. I just got back a paper that I wrote a year ago. I got it back today. With about 17 words of “criticism.” Niiiiice.