I, along with many, many others, have done and do still bemoan the state of preparedness of students when they rock up to university, clutching their brace of braces, their four poached A*s.
Obviously, it depends on the tutor they end up with, but should they alight on one such as I, they tend to get one hell of a shock on receipt of their first essay mark. ‘But, but, but I always get As’, they say, staring in disbelief at the steaming C grade which rises from the page like an indoor firework, promising much, delivering sweet FA.
Just to give you an example or three, here are some real (and I mean real) lines from real essays:
‘I have insofar presented observations of kate’s convincement …’
‘shakespeare might not have anticipated an audience of 2009; therefore he cannot be held accountable for our distaste’
‘our youth is fleeting and spent in poverty and old age,’
It seems odd that not one of these students chose to read what they had written before submission – and these are by no means the worst offenders. They were simply the first ones I found that I’d noted down. I’m not sure which is worse, their writing or their reading. Too, too often I hear the fateful words ‘that wasn’t what I meant’, and my heart sinks.
Many moons ago, I was studying music in Los Angeles and was in a class run by Scott Henderson, one of the fusionistas of the day. He recounted that when he was recording with Joe Zawinul, legendary keyboard stroker of Weather Report fame, he recorded a solo and immediately asked if he could re-record it. ‘Why?’ he was asked. ‘Because it’s not what I wanted to say’. ‘So why did you say it?’
It’s different with writing. You write. You read. You edit. You polish. It works. Oh, ok. The point. The point is simple. Almost as simple as the essays too often delivered. These students are brought up in a culture where they are taught to test. They are simply not taught to read. They don’t have the time, for starters. They are given lists of what thou shalt write.
A student, and a bright one, on my asking her why she kept using such poncy phrases – you know the ones, those cod-academic words and formulations which scream ‘I have no fucking idea what I’m doing but I think I can fool you if I write lexis often enough’ – said simply ‘we were told that academics never say word, they say lexis’. I sighed and pointed out that it didn’t work in her essay and it sounded poncy and what’s wrong with just saying what you mean. She just repeated her maxim. I asked who told her this, and she said ‘my 6th form tutor’. Ah, I said. Answer me this. Who am I? ‘My tutor’. Yes, but more generally? ‘An … academic?’ Bingo! Did your 6th form tutor have a phd? ‘No.’ Did he/she ever teach at university? ‘No.’ And yet you take their word on what an academic will write over mine? Silence.
Everyone likes to be given simple instructions. Do this, and this will occur. Cause – effect. But the study of literature simply is not like that.
To study literature you need to do one thing above all others – read books. These need to be real books, not books about books. And yet there is increasingly no need.
The Guardian has launched a set of resources for teachers. They are designed, no doubt, with the best interests of both teacher and student at heart. But, like york notes, spark notes and all the rest, the fuck children up. And Universities will increasingly do the same, as parents demand their darlings be drilled rather than educated. Fucking idiots.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad
But only when they attend to your every need. Ignoring the fact that the Guardian may put these cheat books out of business, the real problem is that they replace the one great need for students. It is no longer necessary to read the text, so by the time they’re at university, they have forgotten how to. To add insult to injury, they then proceed to expound with no little eloquence on one text. Impressed at their sudden ‘getting’ of it, you ask a question, or, more daring, pose one.
Suddenly, you’re stuck with Nigel Tufnel being asked the fatefull question, ‘why don’t you just make ten louder?’
‘But … this one goes up to eleven …’
And, once more, you hold you head in your hands. Stop it, Guardian. You’re not helping. In fact, you’re making it worse. This may well be why so many of your bright young journalistic things write such egregious tosh. It’s not because they don’t read, but because the can’t – they see the words, but no meaning reaches their dull little brains. And when they read it back, they don’t think to themselves ‘what a load of shit’. They just smile, and wait for the credits to appear in their bank accounts.
They may not be able to read, but they sure can count.