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Sunday, September 10, 2006

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.

  • At 9/10/2006 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    And herein lies the difference: your first-year essays make you think of dutiful graduate students suckling at the teat of theory (see Keats's relationship with Franny), while mine make me think of dutiful high school students raised on a strict, yet healthy, diet of five-paragraph essays.

    Still, I had no idea you were so into the phallus, or sausages.


  • At 9/10/2006 03:52:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    the manifest content of sausage is bricolage: contradictory, arbitrarily related meat pieces, potentially even those of the physiological phallus, unified within a matrix of even smaller bits of meat and spice. Therefore, the phallic sausage itself can be understood both in its form and content as the inverted and displaced Symbolic Order -- the Lacanian Phallus -- link upon link, signifier upon signified, filling our stomachs, perhaps, but leaving our hunger for ultimate meaning and/or Manifest Presence unsated.

    Drayton's Sonnet 61, however, is a MASTERPIECE.

    Yeesh. No wonder we like history.


  • At 9/10/2006 03:58:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    And you know what happens if you eat too many sausages in the links of signification? You get fat, and hence evil.


  • At 9/10/2006 04:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    this IS a good object lesson in pedagogy, huh?

    drumming of fingers



    Inkhorn? Did you write UG papers? Or have they already been published?


  • At 9/11/2006 12:17:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    I also love the "Mark" in your second sentence on Marnie: "Mark, the embodiment of the “masculine” in the film has epistemological power over Marnie, the film’s feminine representative."


  • At 9/11/2006 12:44:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    So I hear "Mark" is a character; I thought that "Mark" was saying, "Note this." It was the missing comma after "film" that threw me; well, that and never having seen the Marnie.


  • At 9/11/2006 12:48:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    You should have clicked on my handy IMDB link to Marnie. Still, I can't deny my comma error. Especially after my mockery of Truewit's use of semicolons!


  • At 9/11/2006 12:50:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    By the way, we just got our first hit from a Google search for "Hitchcock Marnie," so let me just give this warning to all the students out there who may be skimming rather quickly over the non-quoted parts of this post:

    Don't plagiarize this paper. You will be caught. Write your own bad paper.


  • At 9/13/2006 02:14:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Hey, it sounds like we went to the same undergraduate institution. Was this for a Modern Culture and Media class?

    Did you have to read Marx on the Fetish for every single English class you took, no matter the period or field, as well?


  • At 9/13/2006 11:50:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Sorry, I can't comment on any personal matters, so I will neither confirm nor deny your hypothesis.


  • At 9/16/2006 06:13:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Oh, I was just joking anyway. I think most of us who went to college throughout the 90s had that experience.


  • At 9/16/2006 06:21:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I can neither confirm nor deny that I went to college.


  • At 9/20/2006 11:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    reminds me of that scene in the documentary about the stones at altamont where mick jagger sits and watches video of himself at a press conference. his verdict: "rubbish."


  • At 9/20/2006 12:47:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    hey tfs,

    Rubbish indeed. But fortunately, unlike at Altamont, no one was killed by my paper. As Donne says in "The Canonization":

    Alas, alas, who's injur'd by my [paper]?


  • At 9/21/2006 11:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    and as Donnie says in -- well, you know where: "i'm throwin' rocks tonight."


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