I’ve been saving this student’s Horror for exactly this moment—the end of the academic year. Major papers have been read, appreciated or lamented as the case may be, and graded; final exams ditto. Grades have been posted. And of course the students have had their fling at the anonymous Teacher Evaluation, the results of which I have not yet seen…but I’m sure there will be some denouncement!
I knew what she meant, having conscientiously and painstakingly written “dénouement” on the board as part of the mapping of a “traditional plot line” when we first discussed short stories. I’m sure that if she read the assigned introductory material in the textbook she would have encountered the exact same word. And I’m sure she copied it down to the best of her ability. Therein lies the problem.
This example comes from 2003. Did word-processing programs auto-correct in those days? I suspect not, although a spellcheck feature might have challenged such an exotic word as “dénouement,” with or without the accent.
As an aside, I must mention that many years ago, back in the 1980s, the computer lab available to our writing classes had a program that could assess the “writing level” of a text, primarily on the basis of the vocabulary. I ran a sample of my writing (one of my assignment sheets) and got “college level,” which I expected. I ran a sample from a student paper and got, if I recall correctly, “junior high school.” This was not much of a surprise, since the course was part of an alternative-admissions program; but in fact the student was a fairly savvy writer in terms of ideas, reasoning, and sentence structure, so I felt the computer wasn’t that good a judge of “writing.” And then, just out of curiosity, I ran a sample from a rough draft written by a student of mine who struggled with dyslexia. And the computer rated his writing “doctorate level,” or “genius,” or some other descriptor that suggested Off The Charts! Indeed, he was off the charts: he was using words not in the computer’s memory bank, and the computer assumed that meant he had a vocabulary so sophisticated and specialized as to be beyond its ken—ergo, smarter than a computer, and ergo, genius. (There was much to love and respect about this student, including his intelligence; but he was neither a genius nor a PhD, and the words he had intended to write would have kept him at or below grade level on the computer’s scale.) So much for the know-it-all attitude of Autocorrect and its minions!
Nowadays I would have to be impressed with a student who managed to get as close as “denouncement” to “dénouement” written on the board. I am now dealing with the first of I fear many generations unable to read cursive writing. This isn’t my assessment: it’s my students’ assessment, or rather their boast and their excuse—and their agony. Here’s the history of my discovery:
- Many years ago, before the atrophy of my fine motor control over my finger muscles (consequent on the tyranny or luxury of writing on the computer), students used to marvel at the beauty and clarity of my handwriting. I prided myself on it, too, and occasionally supplemented my income with calligraphy gigs, including names on diplomas.
- Then, as my Mac wrapped me more and more completely in its convenient and charming clutches, students began to say my handwriting was hard to read. I felt bad about that until I asked them to show me what they couldn’t read, and got this: “Oh. That says ‘ambiguous.’ “Yeah? That’s what it looked like to me. Is ‘ambiguous’ a word?”)
- And this year, making the same enquiries in response to the same comments (“I can’t read your writing”), this is what I’ve been getting: “Oh! ‘Paragraph!’ I didn’t know what that middle letter was.” And, writing on the board, “What is that letter???” “It’s an ‘f.'” “What kind of ‘f’ is that?!?!” This makes sense of the comment I got one day from the World’s Most Gorgeous Cashier, at my local Trader Joe’s, when I handed him my check: “You have a nice signature. I’m damned if I’m going to let my kids not use cursive writing, no matter what the school says!”
So I’ve been talking to my students this year about “writing cursive.” Evidently, at least for most of them, they’re taught cursive writing in the third grade and then never asked to use it again—in some schools, told not to use it again. No wonder they all print on their exams and in-class essays, and no wonder they moan and groan about “hand torture” in the process. (Yes, I too used to moan and groan about hand torture, after writing non-stop for an hour or two. They start to m & g after about 15 minutes.) They claim that their teachers didn’t make them (or want them to) use cursive because “all the reading and writing we’ll be doing will be in print, on the computer, so who needs it?” I suspect that somewhere in the mix were a few ever-hopefuls who thought their papers would be more legible in what we used to call “printing” than in what we used to call “writing,” or “handwriting”; but if that’s the case, I’m here to tell them they’re dead wrong. Student scrawl is student scrawl, and it afflicts printing no less than it used to afflict writing.
Evidently I’ve gone somewhat astray on this post, which began with “denouncement.” What was responsible for the student’s error—inattention, some precocious computer speller, limited vocabulary, or inability to read? Whatever, I wrote down her sentence because, wrong though it was, it did seem to speak a deeper truth. Alas.