Spring's dilemma

Confessions of an English professor

JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION

It is Saturday, 71 degrees, dry and the Oleanders are blooming. I wanted to ride my bike on a Gulf Coast beach road but being the good trench soldier that I am, I graded 20 English compositions instead.

Spring is always thus: potential fun under mild, blue skies gives way to duty. The semester is drawing to an end and half of my 80 English composition students are still waiting to get their latest essays back.

Every job, no matter how beloved, has its drawback. For teachers of English composition, the drawback is paper – lots of it, a never-ending cycle of summaries and essays to mark. I once counted the number of assignments that I handled in 16 weeks of instruction – about 1,200. They are written by college freshman who consider the mechanics of sentence construction on par with watching Ed Sullivan reruns.

No matter how much I promise myself that this semester I won’t let the weight of illogical and ungrammatical sentences overwhelm the rewards of incremental student achievement, the moment always arrives. If I had a nickel for every “its” I marked with an apostrophe in the past 12 years, I’d be on the Champs-Élysées sipping 1999 vintage Perrier Jouet ($267).

But since I don’t get paid by the apostrophe, I find other ways to get through the semester without throwing away a stack of essays and claiming that they were incinerated by a train carrying two billion tons of battery acid. Don’t laugh. That excuse is hardly more unbelievable than some I’ve heard. Believe me, I’ve heard them all.

Truth be told, they don’t want to write them and after 300, I don’t want to grade them. When that moment comes, I practice the hard lessons I’ve learned about teaching. When the going gets tough, I ask students to write about a subject to which they can relate. The essays improve and my enjoyment in reading them does, too. I learned this valuable lesson teaching “Short Story and Novel.”

A few years ago, I tried engaging students in a serious study of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As it turned out, they didn’t much care about the evil lurking in the human soul. I tried enlivening the slow-going 1902 novella by showing a scene from the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now where Marlon Brando recites Kurtz’s famous dying words – “The horror! The horror!” just before he gets hacked to bits by Martin Sheen.

The effort didn’t work. And Francis Ford Coppola’s version set during the Vietnam War is livelier than Conrad’s African-set tale about an ivory dealer’s confrontation with his dark side.

It didn’t help that most of them had never heard of Marlon Brando.

After that flop, I asked my mostly female students to read a Pam Houston story from a collection called Cowboys Are My Weakness, which explores the war between the sexes. When they subsequently pronounced my reading list better than the more “classic” list of another instructor, I couldn’t decide if I had failed them or improved instruction.

Still, for better or worse, I got the message.

Now when spring semester blues hit, and I start feeling like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill, I assign a perennial favorite – a comparison and contrast essay about the difference between men and women. After reading humorist Dave Barry’s best takes on this subject, my students have a lot to say. This is a subject on which Barry himself couldn’t best them.

 Humor they get. Ellen DeGeneres and Chris Rock taught them something after all.

Consider these lines written by a 30-something, male student about how the genders differ in relation to automobiles:

“All women seem to care about is the car has four wheels and it can get them to Wal-Mart. They don’t even seem to know that cars need oil changes, even though there is a sticker on the windshield telling them so…. They tend to like long, stringy things hanging from their rear-view mirrors such as their high school tassel or a collar off a dog they once had.”

Then there are these lines in an essay about the difference between men’s and women’s interest in sex.

“A man and a woman are different in just about every way possible,” a female student opines. “Body parts are completely different; one pokes out and one is a hole.”

Another favorite from this semester’s batch is an essay about how women lie better than men. To support that main point – we English comp teachers are all about supporting main points – the student tells the story of how her mother once gambled and lost the rent money. She told her husband that she’d been robbed, presented a phony police report and got away with it. To this day, the student says her dad believes this story – only mother and daughter know the truth. (Dad, I hope you aren’t reading this.)

Europeans often make fun of Americans for being superficial – they think we don’t care enough about the big subjects like the meaning of life or the philosophy of the mind. But on a day such as this, when I start the day dreading it and then laugh my head off – so to speak – I realize that my students may teach me more than I teach them.

After all, only a masochist would want to spend a day that’s sweet with spring flowers philosophizing about the darkness of the human soul.

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