“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ …

My student was writing about a poem by Catullus, and he’s right: that’s how it started out. It’s quite similar to a poignant poem fragment by Sappho. Both poets are writing about being of two minds, being torn by two contrary emotions. No matter how familiar that situation, it never ceases to produce agony, at least in the world I inhabit (the same one Sappho and Catullus used to inhabit, I believe).

My student didn’t quite get that, though. Here’s what he had to say:

“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ This can be interpreted as the speaker is indifferent about his feelings.”

Usually I can agree with students when they protest a correction or query with an insistent “But you knew what I meant.” But here, do I? For that matter, does he?

Every once in a while a student offers a flat-out piece of self-contradiction that I know can’t be intentional. But the ensuing paragraph rarely resolves the problem; more often, the writer seems to assume that truth has been uttered, insight offered, and it’s time to move on. The reader has to ask, though, how the writer could simply move on—indeed, whether the writer has actually read the sentence at all.

Is it possible that this student doesn’t actually know the meaning of “indifferent”? Might he think it means “confused” or “puzzled by the difference in” or even “different”?

It’s hard to imagine a college student unfamiliar with “indifferent.” (I never thought anyone would have trouble understanding the word “disinterested,” either—would think it meant the same thing as “uninterested”—but evidently a lot of people are in that particular boat, and if English continues to bend to accommodate usage pretty soon I may be the one who’s confused.) The more I think about a possible confusion between “indifferent” and “different,” the more attractive it becomes as an explanation, because I do have students who seem to disregard prefixes such as “in-,” which are unstressed and sort of sound as if they might just be little gulps preceding the actual word.

Probably I shouldn’t puzzle over this too much. After all, he did say that the line could be interpreted as, not that it actually meant that. He isn’t actually “owning” the idea; he’s just throwing it out there. I wrote “No, it couldn’t” in the margin; he may have read my comment and simply said to himself “Oh, huh. Whatever.”

Still, because I cling to the idea that my students really do try, I would welcome any other explanations for his bizarre assertion. Was he confused about the meaning of “indifferent”? Did he fall asleep at the end of the first sentence or in some other way completely forget it as he plunged into the second? Or is something else entirely going on?

There’s always the possibility, albeit remote, that he’s right. Perhaps those of us who think we are wrestling with fiercely contrary feelings are actually completely indifferent, and just don’t know it. Perhaps we should just get over our silly romantic stance, put our feet up, and change the channel.

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

6 responses to ““The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ …

  • phil schaefer

    Well, Ruth Anne, and this is Mary Jane speaking. ( I don’t know why Phil is named as owning this response. ) Well, Ruth Anne, say I, I believe the
    student was saying that the speaker was confused about his feelings.
    Not “indifferent” as we would define the word, not at all, but “undifferentiated,” not being able to untangle the confusing threads that
    seem to have gotten him into a twisted emotional mess.
    I would guess that this student doesn’t do as much reading as might be
    desirable. Vocabulary lapses result from this lack of experience absorbing
    the language. And blah, blah, blah, I’ve said that before, because I’m an
    old antique who still believes in books. I also believe in romantic love,
    and the possibility of its staying un-indifferent. But I don’t believe in any love that doesn’t carry its own load of pain with it, as part of the deal.
    “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”
    And “A woman should expect to come back down to earth, or she’s doomed herself to reading romances.” On the other hand, which is perhaps a third hand, there is the exquisite Gregory Fitoussi, an actor
    in “Mr. Selfridge,” who is so remarkably gorgeous and charming, my
    married over forty years heart flutters. And I canna help it. I guess I
    must be indifferent after all.

    • RAB

      Good theory, Mary Jane. Actually a goodly number of actors in “Mr. Selfridge” set me heart a-flutter. In fact, when I see two of them on the screen together, I can’t decide which flutters me more. I guess I’m indifferent to them. Good lord, then, how to term my response to the red-headed one, to whom, aside from my temporary moral outrage at his behavior to his cast-off lover, I am decidedly indifferent (in the old sense)?

  • Christian Kallen

    I believe the student meant the speaker was conflicted about his feelings- of two minds. As in, in a state of difference, not unity. Okay, it’s not English the way I learned it either!

    • RAB

      Ah! “in-different”! Makes a kind of sense. This student is in for a lot of confusion when he reads something written by anyone who intends the actual (traditional?) meaning, but perhaps he doesn’t do a lot of reading anyway. Thanks!

  • jerseechik

    my husband teaches middle school Reading and tells me the students are taught ‘sight reading’: to glance at a word and try to understand it from context. Thus it is possible and acceptable to read the word ‘tentacles’ and think it is the word for a part of the male anatomy… I believe your student didn’t even see the ‘in’ prefix when he learned the word.

    btw, our keyboard refuses to let me use a capital “m”- it is indifferent to my distress over this.

    • RAB

      Not unlikely. Oh, how much one loses if one loses the prefix! But thank your husband for reminding me of this feature of the way students now read. Do you suppose it has anything to do with the loss of the word “definitely” also? Most of my students write “defiantly” when a normal person would write “definitely.” And I’m seeing the same error more and more in online comments. Either English speakers are becoming increasingly militant, or they are becoming increasingly oblivious to the existence of certainty—or at least to the existence of a word to express certainty. But maybe it’s just that they see “defi-” and assume whatever follows will mean “definitely.” Also please thank your husband for his service!

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