The Chronicle Does it Again!

If you scroll through the posts that have been made, you’ll see I predominantly write about

  • Education
  • Food

Since we’ve had a few articles on food lately, we shall now return to our regularly scheduled Chronicle review.

They have officially befuddled me. Well, not “they” meaning the Chronicle, but certainly the author. The article in question is “On Students Who Are Full of It.” It begins by discussing how New York Times author Michael Winerip traveled to Ursinus College, where J.D. Salinger spent all of one semester of his brief college career. According to the Chronicle author, Winerip found some copies of the student newspaper featuring articles by Salinger, noting that

“The writing is so snide and hip and insiderly, it is almost impossible to tell what, if anything, he was trying to say. He was also the paper’s theater critic, but his reviews were mindlessly positive and cloying, particularly when it came to female roles, and some scholars have speculated that his primary artistic goal was bedding coeds.”

The Chronicle then suggests what professors should do about students who we are convinced have talent, but who choose to write their essays the night before they’re due, or who fail to proofread at all, or who write a 10 page “paper” on Leviathan that liberally references Calvin & Hobbes instead of Thomas Hobbes. And now comes the shocker: the author argues professors should show these students mercy.

Why?

Frankly I’m still not sure. The first argument is that genius needs room to grow. That Salinger, Einstein, and various other intellectuals of the 20th century were terrible at monotonous schoolwork and received poor grades. That these students who turn in what we like to call “trash” are really just stretching their creativity and trying to find who they are as writers and thinkers. That giving a student a poor grade for proof-reading or for not sticking to the topic could halt the greater intellectual progress these students are actually experiencing, and–worst of all–the sight of so much red pen in the margins could dishearten them. In this part of the article the author described one of his own Salinger-esque instances: he wrote an article for his high-school newspaper that was deemed “utterly repulsive.” The Latin/P.E. instructor pulled him aside and berated him for writing such nonsense; another instructor–only referred to as Father Dennis–handed him back his newspaper article bleeding with red ink that pointed out every single grammatical flaw. The author talks about how humiliated he was by both experiences, and that retrospectively he is grateful to the professors throughout his career who “gave him slack.”

The second argument for why these students deserve mercy is that the professors need to recognize that the student is not trying to anger them with their assignments. That the student is not trying to personally insult. That we should even consider the more insulting papers to be the ones with more potential. Moreover, if we really think that down deep this student has any level of potential, then it is our obligation to their futures to let them slide. To write things like, “I like how you referenced 20th century pop-culture in your paper on 17th century political theory. Please try to mention Thomas Hobbes more in the future when writing about his work, though.”

I finished this article and I was in shock. Then, my reaction was “You have GOT to be kidding me?!” Here are a few comments:

  • The Salinger opening reference and the personal story with Father Dennis have nothing to do with the “argument” of the article. Why? Because in both of those cases we were talking about pieces written for a student paper. The last time I checked, writing for a student paper was completely optional and had nothing to do with the academic portion of college. In fact, most student papers I’ve read generally feature poor writing (particularly in the reviews and editorials) and various political/pop-culture references that have nothing to do with the rest of the article. Regardless, extra-curricular writing activities should be treated differently than academic assignments.
  • The author is arguing we should make it a rule to treat students like exceptions. This is doomed to fail. Particularly when the reason the student is an exception is because of a “hunch.” It’s one thing to except a student because of a personal illness during the semester. It’s one thing to except a student because he is a senior and your class doesn’t apply to his major. But excepting a student because you think–despite the fact he did not proofread, and/or turn the assignment in on time and/or address the prompt you gave–he is just not living up to his potential is wrong on so many levels. It is first wrong to give this excepted student the impression that his work actually is worth passing. It is wrong to treat this student differently than you would the “genius” who was actually trying to play your academic game, purposefully stifling his creativity to try to get a passing grade in your class. It is wrong to treat this student differently from the other students who paper-wise turned in something similar but just didn’t set off your “hunch.”
  • My last issue with the article is a philosophical one. Are we really to believe that genius only flourishes when every door is opened? Did Einstein and Salinger–for example–suffer because they had a few academic doors shut in their faces? Debate-able, but yet they still prevailed. True genius will always find a way to prevail. That’s almost part of the definition. Professors shouldn’t take themselves so seriously: one class is rarely–if ever–going to make or break a student. If the “genius” suffers because of poor study habits or inability to follow directions, he will learn the lesson (one way or another) and he will still find ways to flourish. You may just want to quit reading the school newspaper.
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One thought on “The Chronicle Does it Again!

  1. I’m not going to read the Chronicle article on the grounds that it’ll probably just make me very angry, but is the author seriously suggesting that the students most likely to flourish in the long run are the ones who turn in poor-quality assignments due to lack of trying? If so, I think all hard workers should be deeply offended by this: by working hard, we’re less likely to do well in the future? That the “talented” (a concept I despise) are better off not trying to do a decent job of things?

    Also, anyone who is going to be so deeply hurt by a negative response to lousy work is probably not going to have the thick skin necessary to tackle the (generally much tougher) world beyond college.

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