Monday, December 21, 2009

A Paragraph About Nothing

I feel compelled today to cross-post this exercise from my website. The purpose of the exercise is to read the paragraph, a Discussion paragraph about one book from a "critical lens" essay, and determine what score it should receive based on the Regents rubrics:

The novel Prognosis Negative by Art Vandelay expresses protest against many different things. The story covers a great deal of time and takes the reader through many different places and events, as the author uses several different techniques to really make the reader think. By using a certain type of narrative structure, Vandelay is able to grab the reader’s attention and make the piece much more effective and meaningful, showing how everything happened. The story moves from the beginning to the end as the protagonist struggles to resolve the central conflict, while a number of unusual and unexpected things occur along the way. Characterization is used throughout the novel, as each of the characters is described in a different way, making them seem more real and allowing the reader to better relate to them. Each character has a unique personality, with several important characteristics described in the text. This allows the reader to understand who these people are, why they do what they do, and how they end up where they are in the end. The characters represent how the author feels about the issues he is protesting, and in the end, the reader understands exactly what Vandelay is trying to say. Prognosis Negative is an example of how authors use their works to express their opposition to various things.

I created this back in 2002 when I was teaching on Long Island. It's a pretty fair representation of how the students at that school tended to write literary essays, with the language streamlined. I created this for two reasons. One was because I noticed an overwhelming vagueness in the students' writing about the literature they had read and about the literary elements of those texts. The other was because when my supervisor saw a paragraph like this, she would heap praise on it and tell me I was wrong to not score it a 5 or a 6.

I think a lot of teachers, when they read this, would agree with her; that this is lucid, errorless, sophisticated writing, the writer clearly knows what he's talking about, and it proves its thesis by discussing literary elements. But read it again and pay close attention to what the writer is saying, not how he's saying it. If you're paying attention, you'll realize almost immediately that what the writer is saying is ...


Forget for a moment that there is, of course, no such book; it's a combination of two not-so-obscure Seinfeld references (show about nothing, paragraph about nothing). The paragraph is a combination of boilerplate clich├ęs ("really make the reader think", "make the piece much more effective and meaningful," "allowing the reader to better relate to [the characters]", etc.), comparative words like "better," "various" and "different" used as descriptors by themselves, interrogative conjunctions like "who," "what," and "how" setting off clauses without providing any specific answers or examples, and to the extent that literary elements are mentioned, their terms are used only to define themselves. No character is named, no event from the story is presented or described, nothing whatsoever is presented that would be unique to Prognosis Negative among all literary works.

Even if the book did exist, this would obviously not be an adequate analysis thereof. Why, then, would a teacher give this a 5 or 6 (mastery-level) score on the Regents? It's easy to suggest that a teacher might be fooled by the writer's language skill into thinking that such a fluent writer must certainly know what he's talking about. It is more likely, however, that the teacher simply presumes that the writer knows what he's talking about because they've just finished studying the text. In other words, the teacher gives the student the benefit of the doubt.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I never do that. A student has to prove to me that he read and understood the text, and knows it well enough to discuss it intelligently. A paragraph like this doesn't do that, not by a long shot. A lot of the problems I had on Long Island stemmed from the fact that from the students' perspective, this paragraph had always been good enough for their teachers; when it wasn't good enough for me, they felt I was being unreasonable. It didn't help that the Department chairwoman agreed with them.

I never stooped to the level of showing her this, telling her a student wrote it, and asking her to score it. I'm sure it wouldn't have done any good. I sometimes wonder how many English teachers would actually spot it, assuming they didn't get the Seinfeld reference.

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