“When one eats fast food…”

I’m going to consider this Horror the third in the Unnecessary Sentences sequence, although it could arguably stand alone.

Here it is in all its glory:

“When one eats fast food, the oil, fat, sugar, salt, and other contents of the food go directly into the body.”

Where else it might go first I cannot imagine, unless “eating” can include “spilling on tie,” “playing with on dish,” and “putting in the refrigerator for later,” all of which activities do involve a detour between bag and mouth. But once it’s in the mouth, food can pretty much be said to have gone directly into the body (assuming no physical abnormality of the mouth).

I THINK my student meant that all those “contents” are broken down into substances that will enter and affect the various systems and components of the body—structurally kind of like the lament sometimes heard at birthday parties, “That cupcake will go directly to my hips,” an hyperbolic utterance bemoaning the speaker’s propensity for putting on fat. As in that example, so for my student: it’s enough to say the “contents” of food go directly into the body; the intermediate steps can be assumed. But if that’s what she means, how is fast food different from other foods?

She might mean that we should worry because fast food contains excessive amounts of things that are bad in excess—oil, fat, sugar, salt—and we are putting those things into our bodies. That would be a likely idea in an essay about the unhealthy effects of a McDonald’s diet, and that’s what this essay was. But that isn’t what she has offered the reader. Maybe she thought the worry part was obvious.

And of course it is. Of course I knew what she meant. How to prevent invasion by these substances? When you eat fast food, this happens—so don’t eat fast food. And that was her essay’s message, so maybe the sentence is doing its job, sort of, after all.

But I’m still sitting here thinking about ways in which food might go into the mouth and then take some side excursion before entering the body. And I don’t really want to think about it!

Well, I wish I hadn't decided to put a picture in here. Now I'm hungry. But if I eat this food, will it go directly into my body? Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_pattern_diet

Well, I wish I hadn’t decided to put a picture in here. Now I’m hungry. But if I eat this food, will it go directly into my body? Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_pattern_diet

“The health issues that come with eating fast food…”

Part two in the “sentences that need not have been written” series.

“The health issues that come with eating fast food can cause one to become obese and have health issues.”

Now, maybe this sentence isn’t circular at all. Perhaps the first “health issues” are, what, stimulated appetite? Addiction to sugar or fat? Cavities? We know obesity isn’t one of the  health issues mentioned here, because obesity can be caused by these health issues. What else can be caused by them? Ah. Health issues. These must be other health issues: diabetes, perhaps; high blood pressure; heart attacks? Or maybe just addiction to sugar or fat, because really, if the first one isn’t defined then we can’t rule out any possible definitions for the second.

I can’t overthink this. It may just be one of those sentence-interruptus products: halfway through the sentence, his roommate says “Hey, let’s go over and get some lunch” or the hot girlfriend texts “PARTY TIME!” and the writer stops, mid-sentence, to do this other, more attractive, thing. Upon returning to task, he doesn’t waste time reading what he’s already written, but just plows ahead. That might explain it.

Or he knows what he means by “health issues” but doesn’t want to share. He might feel “health issue” is a more grown-up term than “diabetes.”

There is always the possibility, of course, that he doesn’t know what he means by “health issues” but is sure someone must. Either he has no imagination or he’s reluctant to pin himself down.

Maybe he’s afraid if he mentions one he’ll forget a more obvious one and the reader will laugh at him….

Use your words, dear. And I don’t mean “issues,” which you’ve heard a lot lately and feel safe with; I mean the ones in the OED, or at least in Webster’s—the clear, concrete terms people used before the mass media, fear of commitment, and lazy thinking replaced them all with “issues.”

“Mental illness affects the mind.”

I will embark for the next few posts on the sentences that never had to be written.

There is something to be said for establishing common ground in an argument: beginning the process of presenting evidence and interpreting it as supportive of an opinion by first making a statement the reader can readily agree with. But this student’s statement takes that idea down to ground zero.

Mental illness affects the mind.

The funny thing about sentences like that is that they somehow feel important, resonant. But then the reader pauses, sensing something disconcerting. Did the writer mean to be that simplistic, or am I missing something?

Has the teacher unwittingly set a false example? Certainly many of us try to open discussions by asking questions with fairly obvious answers, planning to go from those easy responses to more sophisticated points. For example: What did Melville call his great whaling novel (that you, dear students, have been assigned to begin reading for today)? [How long will I have to wait for the answer? How many students will think to themselves, "Well, I know it's Moby-Dick, but the answer can't be that simple…"? Will I have to smile benevolently and encourage them: "Not a trick question, class"?] But of course this answer isn’t the point: the next question, assuming the first eventually gets answered, will lead off from it: for example, “How much of the book do we have to read before we find out who or what Moby-Dick is?” And then, “Why might Melville have wanted to keep the reader guessing?” Or “Did you have any ideas about who Moby-Dick might be?” Or “Did your prior knowledge about the book make this a non-question for you?” Or “If you had been living when Melville’s novel came out, you would already have heard of the real albino whale Mocha Dick, who had sunk a number of ships, most recently the Essex out of Nantucket; would you have associated that whale with this book because of its title, and would that have made you want to read this book perhaps?” If the class had gotten farther into the novel, the second question might instead have been “Could you suggest another title?” or  “Why not title the book ‘Ahab,’ since the reader’s (and narrator’s) attention is on the obsession, the psychology, of the captain?” Or “Do you think the white whale is the most interesting aspect of the book?” Etc. We all do this: lead the student from the obvious, to the intriguing, to the interesting hypothetical, to perhaps an insight or two or a productive association of multiple pieces of information. But the seemingly obvious and certainly basic first question in a class discussion is not meant to encourage students to commit obvious statements to paper in a written analysis.

Still, students do imitate and emulate; that’s one way of learning. Alas for us, we never know WHAT the students will choose to imitate, and whether they’ll understand what they’re doing.

Now, if the student had begun with “Although the manifestations of mental illness may be physical, behavioral, or verbal, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is an illness of the mind,” I would have happily expected an essay that prioritized types of studies of mental illness, or made recommendations concerning services for the mentally ill, or looked at various treatments of mental illnesses that targeted either symptoms or sources. Or “mental illness affects the mind, but earlier cultures assumed it was a matter of demons, not disease.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, but usually it affects many more aspects of the individual as well.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why we fear it so deeply.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, the very seat of identity.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why the madman in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ thinks he is not mad.”

My student did none of the above, although he was writing about Poe’s story. After the bald beginning, he continued to enlighten along the lines of that’s-why-the-madman’s-thinking-is-so-twisted and we-can-see-from-what-he-says-that-his-mind-is-affected. In other words, yes, the simple statement could have been a door into an interesting and perhaps complex line of discussion.

Or not.

Be that as it may, he has given us a fact. Shouldn’t that be enough?

“These are poems that require re-reading, maybe even three times.”

She is referring to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

How hard this poem is! she thinks to herself. I’d better read it a second time!

This explains why students come to class so woefully unprepared when the assigned reading is poetry. Once through, only a few lines, and it’s time to shut the book and party! Of course when I try to get them to talk about their experience of a poem, they tell me, for just about every one, “It’s about love and how sad love is.” Not a bad guess: many many poems are “about” this. Surprisingly, all these poets feel they must say that same thing over and over again, right? If I ask about a specific image in a poem, I get a generic answer: Q: What is the nightingale doing in this poem? A: It is a symbol of love. (Surprise: NOT ALWAYS! and NOT IN THIS POEM!) Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that they have never read a poem that isn’t about love: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, even The Lord of the Rings all boil down to this essential theme: “Never give up.” Literature’s great pageant.

Once, after assigning Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Snow Storm,” I asked everyone to open their books, reread the poem, and draw the picture created by the first lines—which are, if you haven’t already clicked the link to read the whole poem:

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.

So I did not give them a task requiring a lot of artistic talent: the “artist” need only cover the paper with dots and dashes representing snow. The poem goes on to describe people bent over, scurrying under the sideways-driving snow like mice (except that there is no hawk to frighten them). Students might have drawn the people too. The speaker also says that the sharp, icy wind would be too much for the tender flesh under any hawk’s wing…. I’ll bet you have already guessed that of 19 drawings, 18 depicted, with greater or less skill, a hawk sitting on some snow. They swore that they had read the poem carefully. You tell me. Here’s what I’m pretty sure of: they didn’t re-read it.

I used to think that by the time students got to college they understood that poetry, a highly compressed and usually highly allusive genre, required close and participatory reading from the reader. I discovered e.e. cummings all by myself in high school, and I used to pore over his lines, so playful on the page some of them, working to get inside his mind, inside the poem. I didn’t just read the words “as freedom is a breakfast food” or “anyone lived in a pretty how town” or “in Just-,” say “huh!” and feel I grasped the phrase, let alone the whole poem. Who taught me that? Well, I know my English teachers expected it, but I think I just knew it: poetry demands work on the part of the reader.

For Shakespeare, I like to assign “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” along with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Class begins with the obligatory review of the sonnet form, demonstration of iambic pentameter (Your last name is O’Neill! You’re an IAMB! If I say your name five times that will be IAMBIC PENTAMETER!), illustration of Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes…and then we “talk about” the sonnets themselves. Here’s what Shakespeare is “kind of saying” in Sonnet 18: The girl he loves is just like a summer’s day, just as beautiful and warm, and she will never fade away, no matter how old she gets. Here’s what he’s “kind of saying” in Sonnet 130: She is ugly! (How rude! He must suddenly hate her now!)

And then I read the actual sonnets aloud, line by line, and walk them toward what the speaker is actually saying. They are always quite surprised. This may be why a student long ago defined “poetry” as “when the writer never says what he means.” Anyway, after this careful reading-cum-discussion, some students always come up after class to say they now LOVE “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” My joy is brief, though: the next time the class discusses poems that were assigned reading, back we go to the “kind of saying,” the pervasive bird=love pattern, and all the other signs of the old once-over.

Is this because they’ve had too many “find the symbol” and “guess the meaning” exercises in the lower grades? (And it’s not just poetry—this is what they want to do with short stories and plays also.) I know my students have trouble developing a thesis, and I attribute that to hanging around exclusively with people who share their opinions, so they don’t even know a judgment requires a rational defense. For literature, they rush to a quick general “moral of the story” and feel they have said all that needs to be said.

When I think of all the literary lines, images, characters, moments that have enriched my life and given me insights into emotions and ideas I have not previously been able to put into words or even perceive—when I think of how richly textured my imaginative life has been as a consequence of all my reading—I am filled with grief and rage for my students. There is no way that they’re going to learn the reader’s habit of mind and its attendant joys in one semester. I can show them my joy, offer them my insights and knowledge; but until they manage to work their way through to their own, they won’t have the experience themselves. Why has this not already happened for them? Why have they been permitted to equate the reading of literature with moving their eyes over words?

So I laugh at the notion that understanding Shakespeare might take a second and maybe even a third reading, and also hope that this basic discovery might somehow prompt appropriate action and, down the line, bring joy.

Could happen, right?

“The Babylonians and Greeks prayed and gave sacrifices…”

I’m not sure that once I’ve finished this choice quotation there will be much I need to say:

“The Babylonians and Greeks prayed and gave sacrifices to numerous gods, while the Hebrews only had to keep track of worshiping one.”

This totally explains the ascendance of monotheism. Only one god to keep track of.

Certainly when it comes to following the action in literary hero tales, the student must be grateful for monotheism. All those gods, with all their nicknames, affairs, relatives, and feuds, every human action calling for bribing a different god to get through it, all those temples and shrines…and then on top of it, most of the gods could change their shapes, take on human form and identity, show up unexpectedly, mess around with people—good grief! What a nightmare!

And then look at those lucky Hebrews—only one god to keep track of. Whew. Even if Jahweh has his whims and expectations, even if he chooses to be inscrutable at times, even if he occasionally decides to knock down a tower, or wipe out humanity, having only him to try to keep happy sure simplifies your day.


“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ …

My student was writing about a poem by Catullus, and he’s right: that’s how it started out. It’s quite similar to a poignant poem fragment by Sappho. Both poets are writing about being of two minds, being torn by two contrary emotions. No matter how familiar that situation, it never ceases to produce agony, at least in the world I inhabit (the same one Sappho and Catullus used to inhabit, I believe).

My student didn’t quite get that, though. Here’s what he had to say:

“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ This can be interpreted as the speaker is indifferent about his feelings.”

Usually I can agree with students when they protest a correction or query with an insistent “But you knew what I meant.” But here, do I? For that matter, does he?

Every once in a while a student offers a flat-out piece of self-contradiction that I know can’t be intentional. But the ensuing paragraph rarely resolves the problem; more often, the writer seems to assume that truth has been uttered, insight offered, and it’s time to move on. The reader has to ask, though, how the writer could simply move on—indeed, whether the writer has actually read the sentence at all.

Is it possible that this student doesn’t actually know the meaning of “indifferent”? Might he think it means “confused” or “puzzled by the difference in” or even “different”?

It’s hard to imagine a college student unfamiliar with “indifferent.” (I never thought anyone would have trouble understanding the word “disinterested,” either—would think it meant the same thing as “uninterested”—but evidently a lot of people are in that particular boat, and if English continues to bend to accommodate usage pretty soon I may be the one who’s confused.) The more I think about a possible confusion between “indifferent” and “different,” the more attractive it becomes as an explanation, because I do have students who seem to disregard prefixes such as “in-,” which are unstressed and sort of sound as if they might just be little gulps preceding the actual word.

Probably I shouldn’t puzzle over this too much. After all, he did say that the line could be interpreted as, not that it actually meant that. He isn’t actually “owning” the idea; he’s just throwing it out there. I wrote “No, it couldn’t” in the margin; he may have read my comment and simply said to himself “Oh, huh. Whatever.”

Still, because I cling to the idea that my students really do try, I would welcome any other explanations for his bizarre assertion. Was he confused about the meaning of “indifferent”? Did he fall asleep at the end of the first sentence or in some other way completely forget it as he plunged into the second? Or is something else entirely going on?

There’s always the possibility, albeit remote, that he’s right. Perhaps those of us who think we are wrestling with fiercely contrary feelings are actually completely indifferent, and just don’t know it. Perhaps we should just get over our silly romantic stance, put our feet up, and change the channel.

“I think every story is different. I say this because…”

Students tell me they write “I think” to let the reader know they are not so egotistical as to equate their opinions with fact. Perhaps that’s their intention. But to the reader, that “I think” sounds less like modesty and more like uncertainty, especially to the reader who understands that what people write down is most often what they think and therefore doesn’t expect to see the writer point that out.

Following “I think [whatever]” with “I say this because” begins to seem like wheel-spinning while the writer actually does try to think. There are just too many words there.

I do like the fact that my student thinks every story is different. We spend time in class looking at stories (or poems) that share settings, or themes, or subjects, and discussing the details that make them different; after all, I say, all of literature can be boiled down to some three basic story lines; there must be some reason writers keep writing more. So here, my student is telling me that she has taken into her own set of thoughts the proposition that the differences we’ve been looking at from time to time all semester actually exist. This is gratifying. At exam time, the professor is grateful to see anything familiar show up on the test.

You know I’ve been teasing you with the ending of the second sentence. All right; here’s the entire utterance:

“I think every story is different. I say this because no story is the same.”

That’s a damned fine reason to say it.

Actually, “no story is the same” is a disconcerting thought. Had my student gone on to discuss the relationship between the reader and the story, it might have led to a thoughtful paragraph or two. After all, every reader has experienced the phenomenon of rereading a favorite book after some time has elapsed and finding that the book has changed: the story has wider or deeper implications; the “hero” seems to have acquired flaws; something funny now seems sad (or vice versa); more experience on the part of the reader has revealed a whole new meaning in a phrase, or reference, or scene. Those of us who like to talk about books with friends also know that no story is the same to all readers. Her first sentence, then, would come to mean that every story is different from itself at every reading, or to every reader.

But alas, my student wasn’t taking that philosophical, or reader-response, road. She was about to discuss three stories (as the essay question demanded) that were different from each other. She meant, then, “No two stories are the same,” or maybe “no three stories are the same.” But she has written that no one story is the same, and that must give one pause, although for her it was evidently what enabled her to move forward.

Long ago a professor of mine noted on a paper that I “spent too much time in throat-clearing.” I think this is a good way of describing those first sentences, or transitional sentences, where the writer can be seen to avoid committing herself to a point while he or she tries to figure out what the point actually is going to be, or gets ready to force a concept into actual words. I make this comment to my own students. (I would also allude to Art Carney as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners and the way he would repeatedly shoot his cuffs and shake his fingers in preparation for signing his name to things—master of suspense!—but I know this cultural reference will not resonate with today’s students.)

What my student was doing here was throat-clearing, or cuff-shooting, not yet saying anything. What she produced is yet again one of those masterpieces of circular (appropriately, for wheel-spinning) or self-defining statement that leaves the professor sighing, in wonder and despair, “True. True.”

“This short-term pleasure will only last so long.”

I am ashamed of myself for neglecting my blog for virtually the entire month of December. I have been grading and grading and grading as those student essays, projects, major papers, portfolios, and finals juggernaut in.

The bright side is More Grist for the Mill.

My student was writing about the role of pleasure in the formation of unhealthy eating habits. She meant to say that the pleasure of appetite gratification is temporary, while the bad effects accrue over time and produce lasting suffering. Very true. But instead of saying “That Big Mac with cheese is only a short-term pleasure,” she began with “This short-term pleasure …” and then sought a verb that would emphasize the point. The point, of course, was that the pleasure was only short-term, and so unless she was going contrast it with long-term something-or-other the sentence really had nowhere to go, other than to double back on itself. Rather than start the sentence over, or express the other half of the thought, back she doubled.

And so she didn’t really write what she meant, or at least she didn’t manage to write all of what she meant.

What she DID write was a poignant, if self-defining, reminder of the ephemeral nature of pleasure (in this life of pain and toil). So young and yet so wise, or so disillusioned….

On the other hand, we might view her statement as less a cri de coeur than a carpe diem, and in that sense it’s not a bad reminder for the approaching family gatherings; parties; exchanges of gifts; lightings of candles and fireworks; quaffings of nogs, punches, and champagnes; samplings of cookies and candies; singings of auld-lang-synes: this short-term pleasure will last only so long [note that I myself prefer to place the modifier as close as possible to the word modified], so enter into the joy of the season whole-heartedly, appreciate the pleasures to the full. There’s a lot of winter yet to come, and the warm, bright memories will flicker still even into the darks and damps of January and February.

Especially if you’ve turned in your grades.

“Less radical than duking people into talking to a false identity…”

I learned a new term while reading student papers this past weekend: “catfish.” I thought I was relatively cyberliterate, but this one I hadn’t seen or heard. My student defined it for his reader: “Not the gill-bearing creature, but the person who creates a false identity on a social networking site to bait people to talk to him or her, and sometimes develop deep relationships. The ‘catfish’ most likely experienced some overwhelming event and uses the alias to escape the unpleasantness of that reality.” Now, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the definition, but at any rate you can see that the writer is no slouch at putting words on paper.

But then, alas, his vocabulary lets him down:

“Less radical than duking people into talking to a false identity is luring them into accepting a reality show as ‘reality.'”

You and I know what he meant. He meant “duping.”

Was this a typo or a mistake? I just went to Word and typed in “duking,” confidently expecting the red underline that means “misspelling” to appear (I’m getting it reliably from WordPress). But evidently Bill Gates is okay with “duking,” because I got neither red underline nor notification when I ran spell-check. “P” and “K” are fairly close on the keyboard, although not close enough to be typed with the same finger…. So maybe it was just an unflagged typo.

Certainly, though, my friend Mr. Webster has no use for “duking.” As far as he’s concerned, “duke” is a noun. It might refer to a “sovereign ruler of a duchy” or other top-ranked hereditary nobleman; it might refer to a kind of hybrid cherry (no idea why); perhaps in relation to the power of the ruler, it might be slang for fist, “especially in the plural.” I could imagine a verbal form, but he doesn’t offer “to duke” as, perhaps, “to confer ducal rank on.”

Webster doesn’t allow a verb “to duke” meaning “to punch with one’s fists,” either, although of course that’s what leaped to my mind when I saw my student’s statement. “Duking people into talking to a false identity,” I imagined, was beating them into submission, into taking a lie for the truth, sort of like forcing them to bow down to a false idol. Or what Lucy said to Charlie Brown in one comic strip: “Admit I’m a lady or I’ll punch you again.”

I have to confess to falling a little in love with this new verb! It’s just one degree of force shy of “decking,” or “knocking down forcibly with the fists”: She duked him again and again, and finally decked him.

If my student had had violence in mind, his “duking” might have been a misspelling or mishearing of “decking,” for that matter. But most of his discussion has to do with deception, stealth, insinuation: not force. The (real) catfish is a bottom feeder and hangs out down there in the mud; I wonder if the cyberterm comes from the idea of lurking. Or maybe its barbels (nice word, that!) deceive observers into thinking it’s an actual cat (an underwater cat…?), and the cyberterm is meant to evoke this deceptive appearance. My student might be implying that the barbels look like worms and thereby attract other critters the catfish might prey on…. Or maybe those barbels, rather innocent-looking but in some species capable of stinging things that come too close, made the cybercoiner think merely of hidden or disguised danger. I have no idea, but I am willing to see in the term some association with false impressions. That’s how I know my student didn’t mean to write “decking.”

Yes, we can be sure he meant “duping.” All that’s unknown is whether he misspelled “duping” or actually thinks the word is “duking.” Until he tells me otherwise, I’m going to enjoy the possibility that it’s the latter.

A channel catfish. His barbels look like a false mustache! A disguise! What a duper. Image from http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/fish_species.html.

A channel catfish. His barbels look like a false mustache! A disguise! What a duper. Boxing nobleman, not so much. Image from http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/fish_species.html.

The soft bigotry of low expectations.


The title is an important reminder of why we bother. The post is a warning about what we would see if the MOOC people succeed in creating a future without genuine professor-student interaction

Originally posted on More or Less Bunk:

“We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.”

– Daphne Koller of Coursera, WSJ, November 24, 2013.

“Coursera founder speaks the truth,” is the way that Gianpiero Petriglieri described that quote on Twitter this morning, and of course that’s right. You can only get those deeper cognitive skills through face-to-face interaction, which means (by implication) you can’t get those skills through a MOOC. So why then is yet another MOOC maven acknowledging the inadequacy of their product?

To borrow a phrase from the Bush years…

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