This is hot off the presses.
This semester, second half of freshman comp, my students are responsible for putting together small literary anthologies on a theme of their choice. So that we can together explore the conventions, expectations, and delights of the various literary genres and thus so that students understand how to talk about the pieces they have chosen, I put together a small anthology of my own: this is called “The Common Reader.” Using (mostly) out-of-copyright texts, I assembled works that I love, to present a variety of forms, tones, and techniques as well as a variety of literary experiences; all students have copies of this little book, and we supposedly discuss selections in class. When we’re working with poetry they have 4 to 8 poems assigned in a week; with short fiction they have 2 to 3 stories per week; there is only one play in the anthology, and we not only read it but also watch a video of a production (directed by me some years ago) of the play, so we can talk about how various aspects of performance and stagecraft realize a dramatic text.
Considering the amount of reading I assign in my literature-survey classes, this is an amazingly light reading load, but I want to leave students enough time to do the searching and reading for their own projects.
So I blithely go into class. The school is considered “highly selective,” the students have presented strong high-school grades (and SATs) to get in, and the students describe themselves as highly motivated (and seem to be motivated particularly by grades, no surprise there). They all expect me to give them A for the course, and I do mean “give,” alas. Anyway, blithely, in I go, to talk about these wonderful works with my eager students.
Why don’t they want to talk too? Discussions always seem to be between me and three or four students, while the others sit there—perhaps writing some things down, perhaps looking fixedly at their desks or the floor, perhaps watching the conversation. I always start with “easy” questions, in order to lead from those answers into more sophisticated issues, but most students don’t seem to want to answer the easy ones. I assure them that yes, I do know the answers are obvious, but we have to start with them anyway. They still don’t answer. I suggest that they’re toying with me, feigning ignorance in order to have a secret chuckle at my gullibility. They still don’t answer. Finally, I ask how many have read the assignment.
Well, at least they’re honest. The hands of the talkers go up; everyone else just gazes at me, or the floor, with expressions ranging from guilt or challenge, through cheerful indifference, all the way to what looks like coma.
On the first day of any class, students ask if I give “pop quizzes.” I say I hate them, don’t believe in them, am not trying to catch students out, am not into punishment; then I say that on rare occasions I do feel the need to give one.
Last week I gave a quiz, but it wasn’t a pop quiz. The week before, faced with three whole short stories to read, almost all my students admitted to having read none. So on the Friday (it’s a Tues/Fri class), I told them that the next Tuesday there would be a quiz on that week’s assignment (TWO stories), and so they should be prepared to answer questions about the stories’ details, including vocabulary (an area where they have shown an amazing lack of curiosity or diligence all semester). And give the quiz I did. There were only two questions (of 20) that I considered challenging (“What color is Mangan’s sister’s dress?” and “What is a ‘come-all-you’?”). Most of the questions addressed these two stories, “Araby” and “Miss Tempy’s Watchers”; but I did tack on a few about the previous week’s stories, asking questions that I had also asked in class that week.
For “Araby,” one of my questions was “What is a throng?” (“I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes,” says the narrator.) A number of students answered that it was “a group of people”; only a few gave me an answer that I could give full credit: “a large group of people.” Of course I had hoped for “a crowd of people,” or “a mass of people,” since the boy is moving through a noisy, chaotic, crowded open-air marketplace at the time.
And then there were the other answers.
I feared answers that mistook “throng” for “thong,” but didn’t get any of those. I did get “a tool to pick something up” (tong, I imagine) and, from two students, “a musical instrument” (one of them explained more fully: “a large symbol or drum thing that you beat”). Okay, gong, throng, what’s the diff?
In the same story, the narrator’s aunt hopes that Araby, the bazaar the narrator wants to go to, is “not some Freemason affair.” Now, if you didn’t know what “Freemason” was, wouldn’t you take a moment and look it up? I got not one single correct answer to my “what does the aunt mean by ‘some Freemason affair’?” Here are some things a Freemason affair might be, according to my students:
- a lost cause
- a corrupting event
- running secret errands for an organization
- an underground secret society [maybe he looked it up sort of]
- a chaotic bizarre
- an unsupervised event
- somewhere with no rules
- some waste of time due to lust & desire
- a market where everyone runs around
You will also have noticed that a throng is a symbol that you beat, and a Freemason affair might be a bizarre.
Perhaps the Freemasons, or Masons, do seem like an underground society for students at a Catholic-affiliated school. Perhaps the school’s affiliation is also a partial explanation for my students’ knowledge of Bible stories and archetypes, a knowledge that I would describe as sketchy at best. And perhaps that’s why the parable of the Prodigal Son, which had been one of the previous week’s short stories, seemed so new to them.
We read it in the King James Version, which, I explained, was always the Bible translation preferred by readers of literature, partly because of its Shakespearean lyrical beauty and partly because it was the version most commonly read by the English writers of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and therefore most commonly quoted or alluded to by them. I took time to talk about the meaning of “prodigal,” and I also lingered over the feast the father ordered up for his wandering boy: “the fatted calf.” “Mmmmm, veeeal!” I exclaimed. “Free-range!” And “Doesn’t ‘fatted’ sound more tasty than ‘fattened’?” Anyway, “Kill the fatted calf” is, after all, a phrase that has entered common parlance, even for people who might not remember the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Many years ago, after a class had left the room I noticed that someone had left a notebook behind. Curious to see what this good student had gotten out of a class session that I had found pretty interesting, I peeked in…and found every joke and anecdote I had used to lighten or illustrate the presentation, and not one other thing. So in the case of this quiz, I expected that “fatted calf” would have lingered in the class’s memories even if nothing else had, because I had made such a dramatic issue of it. Silly me, I thought I was giving them a gift in asking them what the father ordered killed for the feast.
- a lamb
- the best goat
- a fattened cow
- the fattest calf
- a fattened calf
- the fattest cow
- a pig
- the fattened pig
Four people got it right. I gave “calf” half-credit, whether it was “fattest” or “fattened.” “Cow” might be a reasonable answer, if the calf had aged while waiting for the son to return, but I couldn’t accept it anyway. “Lamb” is a really good guess if you’re talking about the Old Testament, because of all those shepherds. And maybe, just maybe, I can blame the school’s Catholic affiliation for students who would assume that a good Jewish father would ever order pig for dinner.
But at a Catholic-affiliated school I would have expected everyone to be able to define “chalice.” Many could; but I also got “a kind of drinking glass,” “a small cup,” and, remarkably, “a medallion worn as jewelry.” Is there some organization whose members wear a medallion that depicts a chalice? Could be, but if so, I don’t know of it.
Well, so much for my fantasies about my students’ eagerness, diligence, or playful refusal to admit their knowledge. I asked 20 questions and had expected to score each answer 5. Halfway through my first section’s quiz I noticed all the blank spaces and announced that each answer was worth 4 and I would give them the remaining 20 points for free, just for showing up (several students had cut the quiz). With that scoring policy, just four students, out of two classes combined, scored above 60.
If this is the future, give me the past!
Well, buck up, Prof. Maybe the quiz will have shaken them up a bit (although yesterday’s discussion of the play showed no such thing, even after they had watched it).
For now, I will just ride off into the sunset, proudly wearing my chalice, beating my thong, and hoping to dine this evening on the best goat before I engage in a waste of time due to lust & desire.