When you teach (as I do at the college level), you are the recipient of a great deal of writing. Much of it is clear enough; some of it is wonderful. Some, on the other hand, falls into the category of “to be deciphered,” a category that includes the bewilderingly ungrammatical, the hopelessly vague, and the desperately odd. Everyone I know who teaches has a collection of examples in this last category. After a few moments of helpless laughter and a quick pause to write the gem down comes the serious work of discerning the student’s intention and suggesting a way for the student to revise the phrasing so that the intended idea is communicated.
Then, of course, comes the sharing of these hilarious horrors. I have seen small books of them, paragraphs contrived to include a lot of them, end-of-semester e-mails. I have participated in read-aloud sessions. A few of my examples wind up on writing exercises for later classes.
What I’ve wanted to do for a long time, though, is think about the various kinds of confusion, failures of imagination, imperfect moments of communication, and other factors involved when a perfectly intelligent, serious, and well-meaning student writer commits a bizarre phrase to paper, and then actually turns it in to the professor. I’d like to look at the thousands of examples I’ve collected over the years and see what can be said, with all sympathy and respect, beyond the laughter–and ideally into some insight.
The statement above, for instance, was part of a journal entry wherein a student was commenting on upcoming final exams. Of course I knew what he meant. He was facing a math exam (calculations, formulae), a biology lab exam (microscope, memorization of terms), and a literature exam (essay answers). He felt the lit exam would be easier because he didn’t actually have to memorize a lot of facts or perform specific manipulations of data: he just had to respond to a few questions on what he thought about some things he had read. Not nearly as hard. (Oh, really?) Contributing to his statement, then, is a grave underestimation of the kind of thinking his professor is expecting him to do, and also a reflection of the relative discomfort he associates with the various activities demanded by the examinations. Maybe he has also bought into the general student assumption that math and science are hard, and the humanities are a comparative breeze.