Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Grief should never be met with suspicion"

Yesterday, an article was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education which I am NOT going to link to, because I am saddened that it was given a voice in the first place and will not be party to giving it a further voice. Since then, there has been quite a bit of backlash on my twitter feed in response to the article -- thankfully -- and I tried to articulate my own feelings in 140 character capsules. I didn't succeed, so here's a blog post instead.

The crux of my feelings are summed up in the title of this post. These are not my words, but the words of someone who COULD articulate in 140 characters:

These words are worth saying again: Grief should never ever be met with suspicion.

Two further points:

  1. The assumption that a student is lying should NEVER EVER be the default.
  2. If students are lying about things like this we should instead be asking ourselves what's gone wrong that they end up in such a position.

Ad (1). The entire student-teacher relationship is predicated on trust. My students trust me to give them the information they need -- to learn the course material, to do the exercises, to pass the exam. In return, I must trust that they are coming willing to learn and willing to work. Our relationship must be collaborative, not combative. We are not antagonists here. If I approach my interactions with my students from the assumption that they are lying to me or trying to pull one over me, the foundation for my entire relationship with them is destroyed. It isn't just a matter of whether or not family members die at inconvenient times. I don't assume that students are cheating until proven otherwise. Why would I assume that they are lying to me about something as important as a death in the family?

Ad (2). Suppose it is a lie. Suppose that no grandmother has died. Shouldn't that be far less a concern than understanding how a student could end up in a position where it seemed like the best thing to do was to lie?

So maybe they are lying. Drawing from that the conclusion that they are lying out of laziness or lack of organisation is, in my opinion, near the height of hubris. I do not know what my students' lives are like -- and I don't need to. I make an explicit point of telling students this, that they do NOT need to divulge more details than they are comfortable with, once I have fulfilled my duty of care and ensured that no one is in danger. On a principle of epistemic humility alone, I should not assume the least charitable explanation. I guess this is what bothers me the most about the original post -- that it should seem so difficult for the author to imagine that the situation is far more complex than the mere death of a relative at an inconvenient time.

Further, the fact that students can end up in a position where it seems like their best option is to lie happens points to structural problems in academia. I don't know how to address them, but I do know I don't want to participate in them any more than I have to.

Suppose it is a lie. Suppose I develop a reputation as the gullible bleeding-heart professor who is willing to be generous and lenient. You know what? I'm actually good with that. If my students can't come to me about a death in the family, why on earth would they ever come to me about anything more serious? And if I -- a responsible adult in a secure situation -- am not someone they can go to when they are in difficulties and need help, then, really, what good am I? There is no amount of logic that I can teach my students that would ever make up for me standing by the side and doing nothing when instead I could help someone.

Grief should never, ever be met with suspicion. That our students are lying to us should never, ever be our default position.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Writing like Hemingway...or not

I spent the last couple of days in Oxford at a Fiction Writing for Philosophers workshop (at which I gave a talk arguing that plot is argument and argument is plot; more on this in another post here within a few weeks, I hope). Thursday morning the keynote speaker was James Hawes, who gave us a brief writing assignment part-way through.

We were given the opening paragraphs of Heminway's For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

"Is that the mill?" he asked.


"I do not remember it."

"It was built since you were here. The old mill is farther down; much below the pass."

He spread the photostated military map out on the forest floor and looked at it carefully. The old man looked over his shoulder. He was a short and solid old man in a black peasant's smock and gray iron-stiff trousers and he wore rope-soled shoes. He was breathing heavily from the climb and his hand rested on one of the two heavy packs they had been carrying.

And then we were told to rewrite it, but using our own story and own characters. By "rewrite", we were instructed to follow the structure of the sentences one by one: The first one beginning with a pronoun (not a name! not a description!) and an action, with a specification of the action, and a description of the setting. The second sentence needed to be an expanding on the description, and involve a passive action on behalf of the initial character. The third sentence needed to be more description, but slightly more poetic and fancifcul, with a repetition of the action. Then the first character had to ask a question; an unnamed character had to answer; the first character reply; and the second elaborate. The first character then needed to do an action with a prop, and the second character act and then be described.

The point was to show how through quiet economy of language and setting of scene, one can evoke sympathy for a character by starting at a bird's eye approach and then zeroing in to the details, with some action.

I found the exercise infuriating.

My first thought was that I would try this task with one of my current short stories being drafted, because I have been struggling with it and thought maybe this might get me unstuck. But that was a resounding "no" from the very first word, when I would have had to decide between "He" and "She". See, one of the things I'm doing this story is seeing how far I can get without ever explicitly confirming the genders of any of the characters. So the Hemingway-route is right out for that story.

My next thought was that I would try rewriting the prologue of The Novel in this style, especially because the prologue already has some superficial similarity in initial structure. That was also very quickly a "no": First, because the prologue is in the present tense (for a very specific reason), and changing it to the past just isn't an option. Second, because there is no dialogue in the prologue, and this is again for a very specific, plot-governed, world-building reason.

Since the prologue didn't work, I figured I'd try rewriting chapter 1, since in that chapter things actually happen, there is a location and an action and two characters and a discussion. I followed the template, and what I came away with was so awkward and static and so unexciting. In the actual chapter, Luneta comes sweeping in to Duska's office and spreads her maps on the table with a flourish, announcing that they are finished before Duska can even inquire. There is a sense of vibrancy and action and vitality. We do not know why it is important that the maps are finished, but we do know that it is important that they are.

In the end, I wasn't all that surprised that my Hemingway-esque rewriting fell so flat, because I actually think the original opening is pretty flat. What I found most useful about the exercise was articulating why Hemingway just doesn't do it for me. (It's not just this chapter; I haven't read Hemingway since university, but I remember being mostly unmoved by him then. A Moveable Feast I remember being better than the others, though.) (1) The omniscient perspective doesn't allow me any access to the character's heads, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. I am not intrinsically motivated by the actions of men, so simply having them converse does not make me interested in them. (2) Description. All the description. The light glinting on the water and the wind blowing through the trees and the brown leaves...I don't need it. I realized at one point while drafting The Novel that there was a marked lack of description in it (unless we are talking about ecclesiastical architectural details). One of the main characters has zero physical description; the only thing that is ever said explicitly about him is that he is young and he is male. When I realized this, and I realized I wasn't writing it because I didn't know what to describe or where to put the description, I started paying attention to where and how description appears in the books I like to read, to see if I could get guidance from that. And I found something very interesting: I don't actually read description. If it's more than a sentence or two, I just skip over it until I'm back to the characters. It just doesn't interest me, and there are two reasons for this: (a) I just don't see it. For the most part, the sort of details that are being described in descriptive passages are details that I just do not see when I navigate through my (actual) world. (You can ask my husband about the sheer quantity of things that I do not notice about household details -- whether we have skirting board, what color it is, what type of profile it has, what color the door frames are, etc., etc., etc. I just don't see it). (b) I can't generally reconstruct a mental picture from a spoken description, whether this is a description of a person or a place. So both coming and going, description doesn't do it for me, for the most part. (3) The general lack of urgency about any of it. I have been given absolutely nothing in this opening to make me excited about the characters, or to make me worried about them -- which is funny, because this was given as an example of an opening that gets the reader emotionally invested from the start.

The final interesting thing that came out of this exercise was the number of other people who participated in it who also said that Hemingway does very little for them!