Tag Archives: agency

“The majority of sources that came across my path…”

That fragment isn’t a teaser; it’s all I wrote down. I’m sure my student finished the sentence somehow—”were useful”? “were hard for me to understand”? “seemed irrelevant”? “gave the same information”?

No matter. This is yet another instance of the passive student in a world of lively inanimate objects.

Here I am, sitting in the library (perhaps, or in my bed with my laptop before me), hoping to work on a paper for which I am supposed to do research. I am sitting here, evidently, passively and hopefully.

And sure enough, along the aisles come parades of sources. Can you see them? Slim books, fat books, bound periodicals, videotapes, microfiche cards… Or, if I’m sitting at my computer, here they come like pop-up ads and streaming banners: links, excerpts, full-text articles, YouTube screens… In either case, they’re all headed for ME, traveling at right angles to my gaze, or to my assigned task.

And I just sit there. Or maybe I get up and walk a step or two—not sure if my “path” is figurative or literal.

All those sources come across my path. I seem not even to have summoned them, let alone located and seized them for my use. I reckon I’m pretty lucky—had I sat in a different section of the library, or opened my laptop at a different time, I would probably have missed the parade, since the sources weren’t actually ever coming to me: they were just coming across my path. They would have marched along to their intended destination, and I would have been luckless and sourceless. My paper might have failed to be completed! My grade might not have been able to pass!

Such writing suggests that the world of today’s student, or today’s young adult, is curiously random, a place where things happen to people rather than being the result of anyone’s actions or choices. Flotsam on the sea of life, without what we currently call “agency.”

What ever happened to that conviction of responsibility and purpose that infused us Back In The Day, when we thought we could make the world a better place just by making an impassioned effort? (And we succeeded, too, to a point…)

Those were the days when research was a pursuit—legwork as well as head-work. And damn, it was fun.


“There are millions of McDonald’s, Taco Bells, and Wendy’s that are continually being caught…”

Alert! We are again in the wonderful world of freshman comp, where inanimate objects are agents. But before I reveal the agent of today’s Horror, I must pause to pick two nits:

Writing instructors at the middle- and high-school levels deploy several nonce-rules that students clutch permanently to their bosoms: for example, “Never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But'”; “NEVER start a sentence with ‘Because'”; “Never say ‘I'”…. Persuading students that these were temporary rules meant to break habits rather than three of the Ten Commandments of Writing is nearly impossible.

On the other hand, MY nonce-rules, announced as such, don’t stick at all. One of them is “When writing for my class, do NOT begin a sentence with ‘There is’ or ‘There are.'” I have a brief demo where I first lay out the non-content quality of “there” and the static nature of “is,” writing two sentences on the board that say basically the same thing: for example, There is a murderer behind the curtain and A murderer is hiding behind the curtain. Students tend to agree that the second version gets the important information out in front. Then I talk briefly about the most common structure in English: Subject, verb, object. John hit the ball. And I point out that the first two words carry the main action and the main energy of the sentence in this structure. Then I go to the door of the classroom, exit, and come back in backward, saying “There was a ball that was hit by John.” And then I ask them if they really want their sentences to back into the room, blowing all the energy on a pronoun and a verb of being. And then I say again, “PLEASE do not begin any sentences with ‘There is’ or ‘There are’ while writing for my class!”

But then the next set of papers comes in, and quite often the very first sentence of half the papers begins with “There is…” Ah well.

I also have a problem with “every day person.” For that word cluster to function as an adjective, it should be either fused or hyphenated. But in this case it still wouldn’t serve—”everyday” and “ordinary” may be in the same realm of meaning, but they aren’t straight synonyms that can be plugged with equal ease into any old sentence.

And now let’s move on, with those two nits lying dead on the sink edge, little feet in the air.

Well, the sentence for today began an essay on fast-food restaurants and obesity in America. My student’s point was that NOT going into a fast-food restaurant is very hard.

So here’s the whole sentence:

“There are millions of McDonald’s, Taco Bells, and Wendy’s that are continually being caught by the eye of an every day person.”

A sudden vision of an eye being used as a fishing lure suddenly crosses my mind. Enough to kill my appetite! I don’t know who the “every day person” who uses such a disgusting method of catching things might be, but I certainly don’t want to meet him or her.

But do you see what I mean about agency? Here, the eye is the active agent, busily out there catching millions of restaurants. And here the muckamucks of the fast-food managements thought the garish paint jobs on their buildings and signs would catch people’s eyes, and those people would follow their eyes directly into the eatery. But my student seems to think that the paint jobs, signage, play spaces, unfunny clowns, plastic toys, and easy parking all just sit there…until that eye is cast their way and catches them, continually, perhaps to bring them home to the every day person.

It’s not the eaters being hooked by those Whoppers; the Whopper-providers are being hooked by the eaters, wily anglers with very strange bait on their hooks.

“If everyone works together, change may be able to come.”

I’ve written before about the world of students, where agency is either up for grabs or strangely bestowed. This statement is another example…and I have more, so brace yourself for things eventually to come.

In this hopeful sentence, my student envisions an entity called “change” waiting somewhere out there in the cold, longing to come to us, striving to come to us, but as yet alas unsuccessful in actually coming.

What is impeding or restraining it? Is Change chained in a dungeon or kennel, unable to roam at will? Is everyone standing atop a high and dangerous peak, looking down at Change as it stands impotently below, no ropes or pitons or ice axes available for its climb? Is change suffering from some debilitating disease or condition? Is it ready and willing,  but lacking that third essential state for its advent?

I try these various circumstances on a little cartoon fellow I’ve named “Change,” and I hope that someday he will be enabled. My student has given change the agency here, and “everyone”—picture a cluster of disparate line figures—has to do the heavy lifting to enable him to exercise it: cutting the lock on the chain or kennel; sending down a rope or a basket lift; curing the disease or structuring the rehabilitative exercises; in some other way making straight the highway, opening doors, providing transportation, drawing a map, hauling on a line. I try to picture us doing the needed thing. Calling all hands!

But so much is uncertain in the hopeful sentence that even hope is difficult. “If” everyone works together, yes, but how often does that actually happen, and how much preliminary work is necessary to bring it off? Furthermore, this conditional condition is necessary only to create the possibility that change will be able to fulfill his end of the bargain: change may be able to come. How easy is it to get everyone to work together just on the off-chance that their labors will bear fruit?

One thing my student seems sure of: everyone working together will not effect change; it will only create the conditions under which Change, under its own independent efforts, might decide to come and then manage to get here.

Oh, I knew what he meant: if we work together we might achieve the change we desire. But he didn’t write that. Change has the agency; we are merely enablers of the possibility that it will exert that agency.

This is a first-year student. Three more years, and then he will be expected to step out and take the world in his hands. I hope he learns before then that he has to do something; the world won’t meekly choose to put itself at his disposal.