“the Protestant family situation…”

I didn’t really know how to shorten this Horror so that it would make a good title.

One of my students is making a literary anthology about the death of children. She chose the topic not because she was trying to work out any kind of personal grief or memory, but because she thought that of all the poems she had read about children, the ones about losing a child were the most moving. Not a bad reason for pursuing a subject.

The sentence I am about to pillory came from an assignment in which the student was to read a research or literary source and then write an essay that applied its information and ideas to a piece of literature destined for the student’s anthology. (The resulting essay was to figure as a subtopic treatment in the longer Introduction essay to the anthology.) Attached to the assignment as submitted was to be the first draft of the essay, which as I teach it consists of the student’s notes, taken verbatim from the sources, arranged as they were to be used as the “skeleton” of the essay. This enables me to evaluate the student’s use of source material—how accurately it is incorporated, how fully the student develops its points and integrates them into his or her own argument, how much of the presentation is source-dependent and how much is the student’s own thinking, etc. The exercise generally works well, in that it is a way for the student to discover the difference between sticking source material in and actually using it as a foundation for thought.

This student found a book that linked religious background and “ethnicity” to the parent-child relationship. She wanted to relate its ideas to a memorial poem by John Milton. I read the notes first, and was taken aback by the kind of generalizing going on in the source. So actually my student’s essay—its contents and its level of confusion— didn’t surprise me.

And now:

“‘On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough’ is a poem written by the Protestant poet John Milton, which validates the Protestant family situation discussed in Ethnicity and Family Therapy.”

The source’s description of “Protestant” family values seems derived from a stereotypical picture of 1950s Back Bay Boston families whose forebears came over on the Mayflower, who have sent their children to Harvard since there was a Harvard, and who cling to the old Puritan notion of not getting too attached to family members lest one thereby set them above God.

True, Milton was a Puritan (closer to the early days of Puritanism than to Back Bay Boston), but he wouldn’t have fit into the model established by this source either.

I don’t know what made my student choose a book on Therapy, or on Ethnicity, to study a 17th-century British memorial poem. She probably typed “family,” “child,” and “grief” into the search page of one of our library’s academic databases and this source popped up. Our discussion of the essay she wrote has, blessedly, prompted her to seek inspiration elsewhere.

Her sentence makes it into the blog because of that lovely relative pronoun “which.” To what could it possibly refer in this sentence? Grammatically, because of the comma, she seems to be saying that the fact that John Milton wrote a poem validates some “situation.” But how could the fact of having written “validate” an unrelated circumstance?

Without the comma the “which” would refer to the poem itself, and the sentence would say the poem “validates” said situation. Well, okay: maybe the poem describes some circumstance that is a key and identifying factor in the “situation.” In that way it could make the situation, or some theory about the situation, more credible, could validate it.

Of course “which” could also be referring to everything in the sentence that precedes it: that a particular poem is the work of a particular Protestant poet. That fact gives credibility to some Protestant situation, or the discussion of some Protestant situation in a particular book that is not about the poem. Milton (not somebody else) wrote this poem; therefore, Protestant families deny their children warmth.

Here’s what the sentence actually says to me: “I found a poem that turned out to be by a Protestant poet and a book about stereotypical Protestants in family therapy, and those are the sources I have, and somehow I have to make them fit one another, and this is the best I can do!”

And that’s the scariest thing I can say about this Horror.

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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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