Category Archives: overgeneralization

“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685…”

Well, right off the bat we have two problems.

My student was introducing her Early American Literature “confluences” paper, for which students were to choose from the syllabus five works written within a span of 50 years and then use them to develop a sense of the intellectual, cultural, or philosophical life of that time. Since my syllabus was organized by theme rather than chronology, the paper was my effort to encourage students to weave the themes together into a larger picture (or tapestry)—or, to use the metaphor of the assignment, to show how these separate ideas flowed together into the collective experience of the culture.

She thinks of each piece as having its own “period,” though, rather than thinking of a period that comprises those works. Off to a bad beginning!

The phrasing has no logic, either, but my student is merely repeating an increasingly common bit of thoughtlessness, not inventing her own: “between” asks for two limits, joined by “and.” “Between the morning and the evening,” for example; “between north and south”; “between the cradle and the grave”; “between January and December.” So she should say “between 1630 and 1685.” Instead, she uses a hyphen (should be an en dash, of course), which in expressions such as this is pronounced “to,” as thus: “1630 to 1685.” Now, the last time I checked, it is not idiomatic to say “between [something] to [something else]: “between morning to evening”; between north to south”; “between the cradle to the grave”…. Sorry, but these phrases refuse to mean anything to me! Of course I knew what she meant; that isn’t how to say it, though, at least not yet.

But the imprecision that inhabits this part of the sentence is mere precursor to the huge vague wave of the hand that follows:

“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685, which was when religion, illness, death, tragedy etc. happened.”

I don’t let my writing students use “etc.” In the margin I write “avoid this catch-all!” The Latin phrase that means “and others,” or “and other things of this nature,” or “and similar things” (or as the King of Siam so charmingly sings in The King and I, “et cetera, et cetera, and so forth”) should be used only when other elements in the series can with accuracy be predicted; it should not indicate writer’s fatigue, lack of interest, or “whatev”—which is exactly how most student writers use it.

Here my student seems to have a relatively coherent series, if “religion” can be considered dire and fatal like illness, death, and tragedy. But if she does intend a coherent series, I can’t imagine any more elements that would be needed to complete it: illness, death, and tragedy seem to cover most of the territory. And if she does not consider religion dire, fatal, and tragic, then what’s it doing in this series? (Her discussion of religion in her paper seemed to present it as dour but not dire.)

I also am relieved to know that religion, illness, death, and tragedy seem to have been confined to a mere 55-year period several centuries ago. I can breathe a sigh of relief that these things no longer occur, since she assures me with a simple past-tense verb that they are over and done with. I do wonder how Shakespeare and Sophocles got so sad, and evidently so prophetic, living before death and tragedy happened. Somehow death must have happened before 1630—and after 1685, for that matter—because a lot of gravestones carry very different dates. But my student’s sentence would deny such evidence.

What really fascinates me about the sentence is that it is at the same time so hazy and so confident. In that way it truly was predictive of the entire paper, so I suppose I should acknowledge its value as a first sentence. Yes, the paper really did go on as it had begun.

For nine pages.


“These are poems that require re-reading, maybe even three times.”

She is referring to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

How hard this poem is! she thinks to herself. I’d better read it a second time!

This explains why students come to class so woefully unprepared when the assigned reading is poetry. Once through, only a few lines, and it’s time to shut the book and party! Of course when I try to get them to talk about their experience of a poem, they tell me, for just about every one, “It’s about love and how sad love is.” Not a bad guess: many many poems are “about” this. Surprisingly, all these poets feel they must say that same thing over and over again, right? If I ask about a specific image in a poem, I get a generic answer: Q: What is the nightingale doing in this poem? A: It is a symbol of love. (Surprise: NOT ALWAYS! and NOT IN THIS POEM!) Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that they have never read a poem that isn’t about love: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, even The Lord of the Rings all boil down to this essential theme: “Never give up.” Literature’s great pageant.

Once, after assigning Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Snow Storm,” I asked everyone to open their books, reread the poem, and draw the picture created by the first lines—which are, if you haven’t already clicked the link to read the whole poem:

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.

So I did not give them a task requiring a lot of artistic talent: the “artist” need only cover the paper with dots and dashes representing snow. The poem goes on to describe people bent over, scurrying under the sideways-driving snow like mice (except that there is no hawk to frighten them). Students might have drawn the people too. The speaker also says that the sharp, icy wind would be too much for the tender flesh under any hawk’s wing…. I’ll bet you have already guessed that of 19 drawings, 18 depicted, with greater or less skill, a hawk sitting on some snow. They swore that they had read the poem carefully. You tell me. Here’s what I’m pretty sure of: they didn’t re-read it.

I used to think that by the time students got to college they understood that poetry, a highly compressed and usually highly allusive genre, required close and participatory reading from the reader. I discovered e.e. cummings all by myself in high school, and I used to pore over his lines, so playful on the page some of them, working to get inside his mind, inside the poem. I didn’t just read the words “as freedom is a breakfast food” or “anyone lived in a pretty how town” or “in Just-,” say “huh!” and feel I grasped the phrase, let alone the whole poem. Who taught me that? Well, I know my English teachers expected it, but I think I just knew it: poetry demands work on the part of the reader.

For Shakespeare, I like to assign “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” along with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Class begins with the obligatory review of the sonnet form, demonstration of iambic pentameter (Your last name is O’Neill! You’re an IAMB! If I say your name five times that will be IAMBIC PENTAMETER!), illustration of Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes…and then we “talk about” the sonnets themselves. Here’s what Shakespeare is “kind of saying” in Sonnet 18: The girl he loves is just like a summer’s day, just as beautiful and warm, and she will never fade away, no matter how old she gets. Here’s what he’s “kind of saying” in Sonnet 130: She is ugly! (How rude! He must suddenly hate her now!)

And then I read the actual sonnets aloud, line by line, and walk them toward what the speaker is actually saying. They are always quite surprised. This may be why a student long ago defined “poetry” as “when the writer never says what he means.” Anyway, after this careful reading-cum-discussion, some students always come up after class to say they now LOVE “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” My joy is brief, though: the next time the class discusses poems that were assigned reading, back we go to the “kind of saying,” the pervasive bird=love pattern, and all the other signs of the old once-over.

Is this because they’ve had too many “find the symbol” and “guess the meaning” exercises in the lower grades? (And it’s not just poetry—this is what they want to do with short stories and plays also.) I know my students have trouble developing a thesis, and I attribute that to hanging around exclusively with people who share their opinions, so they don’t even know a judgment requires a rational defense. For literature, they rush to a quick general “moral of the story” and feel they have said all that needs to be said.

When I think of all the literary lines, images, characters, moments that have enriched my life and given me insights into emotions and ideas I have not previously been able to put into words or even perceive—when I think of how richly textured my imaginative life has been as a consequence of all my reading—I am filled with grief and rage for my students. There is no way that they’re going to learn the reader’s habit of mind and its attendant joys in one semester. I can show them my joy, offer them my insights and knowledge; but until they manage to work their way through to their own, they won’t have the experience themselves. Why has this not already happened for them? Why have they been permitted to equate the reading of literature with moving their eyes over words?

So I laugh at the notion that understanding Shakespeare might take a second and maybe even a third reading, and also hope that this basic discovery might somehow prompt appropriate action and, down the line, bring joy.

Could happen, right?

“Beowulf, like Everyman, accepted death towards the end of his life.”

That’s a pretty good time to accept it.

Actually, both of them fully accept death AT life’s end, not TOWARDS it. Furthermore, Beowulf makes a beginning at acceptance quite early in life, whereas Everyman waits until the last minute.

We see Beowulf as heroic partly because he accepts even in youth the very real possibility that he will die in one of his exploits. Wrestling with the ferocious and powerful Grendel in the Danes’ mead hall is fraught with danger; but even though Beowulf acknowledges this, he insists on meeting Grendel in barehanded single combat; although a dozen hand-picked Geats stand ready to assist him, he sees the battle as HIS fight. Either he will prevail, thus saving the lives of countless Danes and relieving King Hrothgar of the burden of guilt AND at the same time enhancing his own reputation for strength and courage; or he will fail, and failure means death of a particularly gruesome kind. Similarly, when he takes a sword and pursues Grendel’s mother into her underwater cave to avenge her (revenge-) killing of Hrothgar’s best friend, he tells his Geats and the Dane warriors assembled at the brink of the mere that he goes into this alone, and their only task is to watch and, if necessary, report his death. Fifty years later, when he goes to fight the dragon who has been despoiling his kingdom after a drunken lout disturbed the treasure-hoard the dragon existed to guard, he acknowledges that he will probably die in the attempt but insists that he must fight alone. Young Wiglaf enters the fight after the dragon has wounded Beowulf, but although he manages to wound the dragon he leaves the last knife-thrust for Beowulf. Both hero and dragon die as a result of this battle; but before Beowulf dies he distributes some of the treasure from the hoard among his people and gives them some good advice (through Wiglaf)—in effect, he makes his will. His people mourn him greatly, a “good king” who has ruled wisely and fairly. Beowulf, though, accepts death with the same grace with which he has accepted success before: it is in his nature to accept death.

This is nothing like the way Everyman “accepts” death, especially towards (as distinct from at) the end of his life. When God sends Death to Everyman to set him on the road to his final accounting at the grave, Everyman tries to talk Death out of it, asking him to come back later, give him just a little more time…. Death being adamant, Everyman then bemoans the terrible state of his accounting book and tries to persuade a series of friends and relatives to go with him to buck him up on the journey. They all refuse (one pleads a sore toe!); he sets out, but continues to ask such friends as Beauty and Strength to come along. He manages to restore Good Deeds to health after much too much neglect, and he embraces the promise of salvation and confesses his sins; he can’t actually be accurately said to “accept” death until the very end, though—his attitude is closer to resignation than acceptance.

So my student is wrong two ways: both on the timing of the acceptance of death, and on the similarity of this acceptance. She should have known better than to try to equate a HERO with an EVERYMAN, or “typical person.”

What an interesting discussion could have developed from a comparison between the two characters. She might have speculated on the relative philosophical stances of a hero and an everyday kind of guy, or on the role of an afterlife on the way a Christian should live life as handled by a (probably) Christian monk writing about a pre-Christian hero, and another (probably) monk several centuries later writing about a not-very-diligent Christian. She could have discussed the value of remembering the inevitability of death (memento mori) even when life is at its richest, comparing Beowulf’s integrity even in his youthful adventures to Everyman’s moral and religious laxity until the last minute (“O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind”). What conclusions she might have reached I don’t know, since I admit I’ve only begun to think of these possibilities as a result of writing today’s post on today’s horror. But they seem to be worth exploring nevertheless.

Making a hasty generalization about a vaguely defined moment is not the way to find the road to revelation: I do know that.

Sometimes I look back on my college career and lament the opportunities I missed: courses I might have taken, papers I might have given more thought to, heights I might have reached…. I know we all have such regrets. It breaks my heart that my students seem to amass regrettable moments so quickly, and at such a trivial level, where they could instead have let themselves be tempted into taking more glorious risks.

Well, anyway, she sighed.

Let us accept the inevitable things while we can still throw joy at them.

“She talked to her son about sex and the consequences it carried, such as…”

This is from an essay about a 14-year-old pregnant bride and her of-age but possibly socially challenged groom. They managed to marry legally by crossing state lines, but upon arriving home the groom was arrested for statutory rape, with the pregnancy as evidence.

You can follow the two links above if you want the rest of the story. Significant to today’s Horror is that before their marriage the happy couple were coupling in the young man’s parental cellar; his mother had tried to discourage such behavior by way of warnings, but obviously the warnings had no effect.

Knowing the context of my student’s statement, you will know what he meant by

“She talked to her son about sex and the consequences it carried, such as pregnancy and a prison sentence.”

You will also agree that my student didn’t quite say what he meant.

Pregnancy is sometimes a consequence of sex, or more precisely sexual intercourse, but it is not a consequence sex “carries” automatically. And, fortunately for billions of humans past and present, a prison sentence is not a consequence of the sexual act. Even in countries where many aspects of human behavior have been criminalized, sex per se has so far escaped the penal system. Going to prison is not, for example, the journey planned for the morning after the wedding night. As far as I know, prison sentences are imposed for behavior (rape? oath-breaking?) or circumstances (gender issues? species choice?) on which the sex act is contingent, but not for the act itself. Such criminalizing reflects social and moral judgments (enlightened or not), not biological events in and of themselves.

We give the word “sex” a whole range of meanings, from “gender identity” all the way to a sequence of dirty doings and their aftermath. Because of this, writers have to be careful to specify what they actually have in mind. My writer has not done that. In fact, he means “sexual intercourse” (having gone to college in Pennsylvania and admired souvenir hats brought back from the town of Intercourse by frat boys, I know the noun needs the adjective!) at the beginning of the sentence; in the middle he means “some instances of sexual intercourse,” and by the end he means only sexual intercourse between an adult male and a minor girl, or the two lovers in question. Because he doesn’t track the shifting definition, he gives us the amazing picture of prisons stuffed to the gills with a huge percentage of the earth’s adult population—who languish, arms stretched longingly through the bars, perhaps lamenting their one fine fling of passion, while smug puritanical critics and homeless children walk the loveless streets.…

Well, be careful out there.


“Women in general always make things an issue…”

You can feel it coming, can’t you? A student sentence that begins “Women…” never bodes well. This one begins “Women in general,” brightening that glimmer of dread into a definite yellow warning light: SWEEPING GENERALIZATION COMING! PROCEED WITH CAUTION! And the writer’s admission that he’s generalizing, possibly that what follows does not necessarily apply in every case, is then boldly swept aside by “always.” If only I could tell my student “RED LIGHT! STOP!” before he took the next step…but he was treading this path by night (read: the night before the paper was due, probably) in a dorm room far, far away, too far for me to sense the danger and too far for him to see the light even if I had flashed it.

He may feel confident in his generalization because it is, heaven knows, not new. He probably hears it, or something a lot like it, whenever he’s in the company of other males. It may be a lesson learned at his father’s knee: Women always make things an issue. *sigh*.

Talk about generalizations: “things”? “issue”?

But the sentence does nothing to explain, specify, or clarify. This generalization is not even, in fact, the point of the sentence. Wait for it:

“Women in general always make things an issue compared to men who simply brush problems off their shoulder.”

The recent thrilling discovery of the bones of Richard III tempts me almost irresistibly to riff on the idea of one-shouldered men, or men with one higher shoulder, perhaps, where problems land and from where said problems must therefore be brushed….

What my student envisions is hordes of obsessive, overreacting women, blowing small things out of proportion always, making a big deal always, and on the other side of the same road MEN (no need to say “in general” or “always,” “men” says it all)—nonchalant and debonair men, cavalier men perhaps, “simply” brushing everything off. My student has, presumably, never seen a man make “an issue” of anything, complicate anything, obsess over anything. Every man is Maurice Chevalier, strolling along, boater at a jaunty angle, one eyebrow raised, one corner of mouth ditto, Malacca cane tapping merrily alongside, and a song waiting to be crooned. Few problems would dare to alight on his well-tailored shoulder; those foolhardy enough to try are like dust under a valet’s brush.

Now you know the difference between men and women. Stay at home alone in your room without television, newspapers, telephone, or Internet if you don’t want to lose the brilliant clarity of the distinction.

Well, you see he was right. I could have brushed his sentence off; but, woman that I am, I made it an issue.

“This just proves more of this man’s ignorance…”

I don’t have a lot of time for a blog today and actually was thinking about letting yesterday’s post ride, but then I opened my gradebook and saw a Horror on a back page—a Horror that almost completely speaks for itself—and decided something this perfect really couldn’t wait.

The opening part of the sentence, above, couldn’t have made it into the Book of Horrors all by itself, but it’s nice enough to discuss briefly.

I feel as if I’ve been asking students all my life not to write “this” without a noun following. Not that a naked “this” is improper in all circumstances: student writers tend to say “this” and rush forward into the verb without really clarifying their thoughts, and in particular without committing themselves to a specific referent for the demonstrative pronoun. Without a noun, “this” is really just an arrow pointing backward—to the previous noun, the previous phrase, the previous thought, the previous paragraph, or even the entire essay that precedes it. I have noticed that once a student has used a non-specific “this” in one sentence, the sentences that follow will likely also use “this,” albeit not in reference to the same thing. A paragraph may ultimately offer as many as five “this”es, each vaguer than the one before. I have actually asked students, “What does this ‘this’ refer to? What are you talking about here, really?” and received the answer “Ummm. I don’t really know.” So this sentence raised a little flag, if not red then certainly yellow: “This is a warning!” Or, if you will, “The ‘THIS’ is a warning!”

I also like the idea that a man’s ignorance is being revealed piece by piece: Some ignorance, then a little more, then more…. Evidently our estimation of him does not improve on better acquaintance.

But still, as I said, the sentence is not a true Horror. Fortunately for us, the student couldn’t resist going on.

“This just proves more of this man’s ignorance and how it used to be like that everywhere back then.”

Aha! “Back then”! “It used to be like that!” “How!”

Why do students write “how” when they mean “that”? No one yet who has written “she told me how she liked me” in my class has been Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “My roommate said how global warming is just a myth.” Well, in what ways or by what means is it a myth? That is not the question: my writer means his roommate commented that global warming is a myth; no demonstration of methodology was included (or intended). I would be grateful for a reader’s explanation that goes beyond my own “Why do they always DO that?”

And like what did what use to be? I think we’re dealing with the unspecified “it” here, used the same way we’re using it when we say “it’s raining.” Asked for an antecedent we are left at a loss. But oh, I do wish my student had tried to find a noun. Probably the vagueifying effects of “this” were already setting in. All we know for sure is that “it” was like “that”everywhere. Does she mean this man’s ignorance was gradually being revealed everywhere? Various people’s ignorance was gradually being revealed? People were ignorant? The unspecified agent of proof or revelation was everywhere? I’m afraid she probably means things were rotten all over, in some particular kind of rottenness that she may have previously hinted at.

And finally, in walks YORE: that unspecified, unclarified, undefined, undifferentiated PAST that students are always so eager to generalize about. “Back then.” Now, I’m ready to admit that the subject of the student’s paper probably suggested a time frame: if she was writing about slavery, for instance, or more specifically Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life, then “back then” would probably mean the American 1800s; if just slavery, then maybe 1700-1863, or the world since the beginning of time…. If she was writing about a character in Julius Caesar, then “back then” might mean the English Renaissance/Elizabethan Era—or, of course, the first century B.C.E.

But as it stands, the sentence is saying “Something just proves an additional amount of, or more definitely, this man’s ignorance and the means by which, or that, something used to be sort of like something all over the globe (universe?) sometime during the vast stretch of years preceding my third birthday.”

Well, that’s good enough for me!

p.s. I thought I had nothing to say about this one. I thought I would let it speak for itself. What can I say in my defense? “This just proves how things are nowadays”? Well, try to ignore me. Go back and read what my student wrote, and savor it in your own way while this beautiful sun shines down from this gorgeous blue sky on this breathtaking early-Spring morning.

“They do not go through death as dramatic as ancient Greek tragedy…”

This sentence leaves a lot to be desired. We’ll have to set aside the question of whom “They” refers to, since I can’t readily associate this Horror with any particular assignment. It might have been a “euthanasia” topic, since the sentiment bears some resemblance to the comment used for this previous blog. Perhaps the context isn’t crucial, though.

To what does “dramatic” refer? Grammatically, it must be modifying “death,” giving us a dramatic death, its dimension of drama being comparable with Greek tragedy (really dramatic, worthy of being put on the stage). My writer might be trying to say, though, that the deaths in Greek tragedy are dramatic, and our “they” don’t go through the same kind (dramatic) of death. Or he might be thinking of the way Greek tragic figures meet death, complete with apostrophes, extensive lamentations, and prolonged offstage suffering as described by messengers: “they” don’t die this dramatically—in which case, however, he should have used the adverb, “dramatically,” instead of the adjective. He doesn’t really make his meaning clear, beyond the notion that death can be very dramatic but “theirs” isn’t.

Still, the sentence is merely vague, not actually funny. That comes in the next sentence:

“They do not go through death as dramatic as ancient Greek tragedy. Modern Americans usually just shoot themselves.”

And this, of course, is where I lost it. As in the earlier blog I’ve linked to above, with its “simply commit suicide,” this writer makes death a casual act with the “just” in “just shoot themselves.” I imagine he intends to show how undramatic this death is, compared with the ancient-Greek-tragedy experience; but his wording makes it all so offhand, like just going shopping, for instance, or just standing there, or just writing any old thing.

I also am tickled by the notion that shooting oneself is somehow typical of modern behavior, and American behavior. It becomes almost the thing. Or, alternatively, it becomes a sign of how far we have fallen from the classical ideal. Take your pick.

Without its context, the sentence doesn’t even make clear that we’re talking only of suicide in both Greek and American cases. Certainly one can go through a dramatic death, or go through death dramatically, in the case of natural disasters, terrible accidents, and various diseases (note all the drama of those languid romantic demises the heroines of various 19th-century poems and novels experience as they succumb to consumption). If the reader allows that general idea, of death rather than specifically death by suicide, then the impression the second sentence leaves is of Americans all over the place shooting themselves rather than dying in some other way. Well, I guess we have enough guns in circulation to make that possible; but it would make for a pretty messy country, and a daily routine punctuated by gunshots from every direction.

Be careful out there.

“…Internet sources, which are inherently untrustworthy…”

Students tend to like rules that are absolute, especially in English classes (where, I admit, a hard-and-fast rule can be a big relief after all the “it depends” answers I give). That’s why they get so upset when I tell them that beginning a sentence with “But” is okay—or beginning a sentence with “Because,” which they consider even more taboo than “But” or “And.” Those nonce rules from high school are the bedrock of their writerly confidence, and here I go chipping away at them.

Right now in first-year comp my students are reviewing, or learning, research protocols, including such issues as credibility of source and plagiarism. They are happiest when being introduced to the university library’s databases (especially the ones they can use from their dorm rooms), all providing easy search and access for scholarly sources, because they don’t really have to worry on that credibility issue. But, at the other end of the spectrum (or, one of my Horrors, “on the other hand of the spectrum”), they are dismayed to hear that Wikipedia is not considered a definitive or appropriate source for college work, and nearly as dismayed that information found on the Internet should be vetted for academic credibility, not merely copied down and blithely used. This “hand” of the spectrum most easily translates to “ALL UNTRUSTWORTHY,” and I suppose that assumption serves them better than a naïve trust in everything they read.

The quotation that begins this entry expresses this kind of confident overall understanding. But the quotation as a whole expresses the dilemma that faces anyone trying to get information on a new writer, or a new anything: scholarly publication takes time, and achieving the level of importance that attracts scholarly attention also takes time. Someone trying to research something new, then, may have to choose between Internet information and no information. We try to equip them with criteria and procedures that would enable them to navigate the Web and assess the value of what they find; but the “all untrustworthy” is so much easier to stand firm on.

Undaunted, my student found a way to forge ahead:

“Most information on this poet came from Internet sources, which are inherently untrustworthy, but for the sake of this paper I will use under the pretense that they are accurate.”

Did he mean “pretense” or “pretext”? Does that matter? What he chooses to tell his reader is that he knows his information is untrustworthy but is pretending that it is sound. Rather than assess for himself the credibility of what he finds, using legitimate criteria for assessment, he will simply pretend, to himself and to us, that it’s all good.

for the sake of this paper. Meaning what?—that it works with my very interesting thesis, or that the deadline for the paper is fast approaching and this is all I’ve got?

What’s adorable here, then, is not what he says, but that he says it. “Let me give you the fruits of my research,” he tells his reader; “I don’t think we should believe any of it, but let’s pretend to, for the sake of my finishing my assignment.”

“At the time of ‘The Second Shepherds’ Play’ society is different…”

With this kind of beginning we have learned to expect yet another bizarre cartoon version of history. This student is more philosophical than historical, though, offering an insight into the kinds of realities consequent on the passage of time:

“At the time of The Second Shepherds’ Play society is different than the times of Beowulf and Sir Gawain. There are no monsters to slay etc. This is not the shepherds’ fault, it just is a different society and time in the world.”

Whenever I see “etc.” in a student paper, I circle it and note in the margin, “Avoid this catch-all.” Usually, though, the “etc.” does come at the end of a list, however brief; here we are given only one element in the imagined series and invited to figure out the rest for ourselves. Are we to think about things to slay besides monsters? Differences between cultures, such as the growth of towns, the existence of cycle drama, changes in the English language? It’s impossible to tell, and perhaps the student wasn’t sure what else to list either, hence the quick “etc.”

But of course the real charm of the passage rests on those shepherds. First of all, the shepherds who went to adore the baby Jesus (and brought him that most perfect of gifts, a tennis ball) did not live in the Middle Ages; they were keeping watch over their flocks by night long, long before Beowulf set sail on the swan road. So is the absence of dragons due to the forward passage of time between the world of Beowulf and the world of the Wakefield Master, who wrote The Second Shepherds’ Play, or to the backward gap of time between Beowulf and the star of Bethlehem? And were there dragons to slay back when Jesus was alive (other than the Dragon of Revelation, who actually is still to come)?

What makes my heart go out to my student is that he doesn’t blame the shepherds for not slaying any dragons: there simply weren’t any fire-breathers or hoard-guardians or shape-shifters around anymore. I’m sure that had there been, those shepherds would have been on the job with as much vigor as they fought off wolves, poachers, and other marauders.

I beg my students to observe the dates of composition of the literature they read and avoid making judgments based on the features of their own time. My student is trying to avoid applying the expectations of the twentieth century AND of the eleventh, and I think that’s worth something.

“Women usually didn’t have important jobs in the old days…”

This is another one of those cartoon-version-of-the-old-days statements. Students have written that women had no rights in the old days, that women were downtrodden by their husbands in the old days, that women never worked outside the home in the old days, that women were denied education in the old days…you name it, women couldn’t or didn’t do it.

That’s not to say that the “old days” were a feminist’s dream come true; but surely even the most sweeping generalizer has to acknowledge such living legends as the Amazons, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Katherine the Great of Russia, Marie Curie, Clara Barton, and Florence Nightingale, not to mention any number of writers, teachers, social activists, and artists, in western and eastern culture. My annual “‘the exception proves the rule’ doesn’t mean ‘if there’s an exception that means the rule is true’—proves in this adage means tests!” lecture surely must fall on some ears that aren’t deaf.

But this student, a young woman herself by the way, didn’t stop with the generalization; she explained it, making it much worse:

“Women usually didn’t have important jobs in the old days—they usually cooked and cleaned and did everything to please their husband.”

So, in her mind, cooking and cleaning aren’t important jobs. Someday when she’s as busy as most of us are, and far from her mother’s (or her mother’s servants’) care, she may realize just how important cooking and cleaning are, and how quickly chaos descends if no one does those jobs.

My favorite generalization in this whole assertion is the “did everything to please their husband” one. Set aside the number disagreement that suggests polygamy, and focus on the “everything to please.” Hmmm. The possibilities there are endless, depending on the husband. We now have laws to address some of the kinkier or more abusive demands he might make, but the “everything” that remains legal is also a pretty wide field. Would it please a husband to have his wife earn a Ph.D.?—some husbands, most definitely; others, not so much! Or to have his wife greet him at the door wearing nothing but an apron and a smile (which, I kid you not, was suggested in a women’s magazine I read in the ‘sixties)?

I also wonder about the women who had no husbands, to please or not to please as the case may be. What in the world did they do “in the old days”? Well, in my student’s cartoon past, evidently there were no such women. Maybe they were living in the same non-cartoon as Cleo and Liz and Clara…and my maternal grandmother, who worked as my grandfather’s bookkeeper/receptionist (for a salary) in his fire-apparatus business, and whom my grandfather generally did as much to please as she did to please him. That was in the twentieth century, yes; but they were married in 1914, which I’m sure would qualify, for my student, as the “olden days.” (I don’t want to leave out my paternal grandmother, who came to this country as a 14-year-old governess and then later worked in several factories during her marriage to my carpenter-grandfather, another “olden-days” couple.)

Beware the easy generalization. Beware the simplistic past. Think.