“She waited after fourteen years of abuse to all of a sudden lose her mind.”

Taken out of context, this is a funny sentence, I think, especially if you assume the student was trying to state a fact.

Now, here’s the context: A colleague and I asked students one year to write on the notorious “burning bed” case, a severely abused wife on trial for murder because she set fire to her bed one night, killing her sleeping husband.

This student was writing in favor of finding the wife guilty of murder on the grounds that she was only pretending to have been temporarily insane. The sentence is sarcastic. He believed, evidently, that during fourteen years of abuse everything was more or less okay with her.

This error isn’t funny at all, and it isn’t a writing error: it’s my student’s inability to see life through anyone’s eyes but his own. Regardless of whether he could tolerate her act, regardless of whether he thought the law should accommodate her act, he should have been able to imagine her desperation. I knew what he meant, but since vigorous class discussion on all aspects of the case had preceded the actual writing of the essay, I despaired of helping him revise the error of this sentence— this thought—particularly since it was a writing class, not a sociology, women’s studies, or psychology class.

How deeply a writing instructor, or any instructor, could or should venture into challenging a student’s personal beliefs and assumptions was a tricky question then, and has only become more so.

I hope that the rest of his education, and the life he has been living since, will have given him more insight into the human condition and more empathy for individuals struggling with difficult circumstances.

 

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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