A Third Way to Write a Bad Paper
|I said in the comments earlier that my own papers from my first year of college were filled with dutiful regurgitations of the latest semiotic theory I'd learned only a few days earlier, and now I'll prove it to you with excerpts from some of my freshman papers. Where Truewit's paper (a must read if you haven't yet) inspires laughter from us, and a sort of bemused astonishment from him, my papers just make me cringe. They're more embarrassing than Truewit's, I think, for two reasons: 1) well, they're mine; but, more analytically, 2) because they are so earnestly trying to please, and hence they show virtually no interest in serious grappling with the text. Take, for example, my opening paragraph to an essay on Hitchcock's Marnie:|
Marnie is a film which clearly valorizes its masculine, phallic discourse over its feminine one. Mark, the embodiment of the “masculine” in the film has epistemological power over Marnie, the film’s feminine representative. Alfred Hitchcock, the film’s director, tries to make Marnie in the mode of a classic, readerly text, open only to this interpretation. However, Hitchcock’s desire to affirm male over female discourse breaks through the text in several ways, allowing the text to be opened up and its ideology undermined.See if you can guess what we'd been studying that week. The most original move here is to import some of what I'd learned that week in another class about Barthes's "readerly" vs "writerly" texts into this paper, in a way that really adds nothing of importance. I particularly like that I begin a paragraph further down the page with the phrase, "The thrust of this scene is clear," with no inkling of the irony of my own "masculine, phallic discourse." Ugh. I go on to note that, "Within the story of the film, Mark is clearly portrayed as both 'having' the phallus, in the sense of power, privilege, and knowledge, and as 'being' the phallus, in the sense of wholeness, immediacy, and fullness of consciousness." Phallus, phallus, phallus. See the phallus, be the phallus. The word has lost all meaning by this point.
But the opening paragraph of another paper--in a different class, mind you--on Citizen Kane, really takes the prize for cringe-worthiness. This paragraph resembles a sausage into which I have stuffed the semiotic renderings left over from all the material I have read and not fully digested that semester. It's a paragraph of shreds and patches:
Citizen Kane is a film which challenges traditional notions of meaning. The film utilizes the hermeneutic code--which primarily consists of the adding up of signifiers (clues) to find one central signified (solution)--only to undermine that code. In doing so, Kane demonstrates the semiotic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, who first pointed out that our desire to find meaning “within” or “behind” a word, that is, to search out its ultimate meaning, is frustrated by the arbitrary relation between signifier and signified, and by the fact that signification occurs only relationally between signs. At the same time, Kane, to use Derrida’s terms, undermines a binary opposition in the Metaphysics of Presence, by both inverting and displacing it. Thus, Kane can be seen as a bricoleur, using the tools of the cinema to undermine the cinema’s own, and the film’s own, logic.Somebody needed to stop me here, but no one did, probably because the instructor (can't remember if it was a prof or a grad) was relieved just to find complete sentences and some attempt to use the secondary material to analyze the text.
In all seriousness, this horrible exercise we've undertaken here has really changed my thinking about grading my students' writing. I actually think it's something every English prof should do, if they can find their old papers. Not only does it make me think differently about the sort of "bad" writing that we traditionally complain about, but it will also make me more careful to challenge the sort of dutiful (in a more annoying way than Simplicius's five-paragraph essay), boring, and in its own way thoughtless, writing produced by students (like me) so concerned with being "good" that their writing is difficult to distinguish from a Sokol hoax.