29 October 2007

Life is so Much More Interesing if you Know Literary Terms

I was over at The Austinist, a sort of local news/blog/social networking (a social blewg?) out of Austin, TX. Allnychen, the editor over there, wrote about a new, 668-page report from the state of Texas that concludes the state produces far too many reports. Really. Chen notes how "meta" it is (and it is), but there's also a total ignorance of the concept of irony. Anyone who's been in a graduate English seminar or has seen Reality Bites knows that irony is when the actual outcome differs or subverts the expected outcome (yes, I know there are many kinds of irony and that this is technically situational irony, but this general definition will do). Apparently, the state of Texas can't recognize it when it sees it.

Of course, neither can Alanis Morrisette (as her song, "Ironic" shows) or the typical college student. This paper shows that many students can't understand the irony of dowloading and plagiarizing a paper from an online paper-mill (called "echeat.com," no less) that cites an essay called "A Whole Lot of Cheatin' Going On," which is--you guessed it--about cheating on college campuses. That's irony, my friends, and not recognizing it is symptomatic of an inability to look at the larger scope of things, at the life going on around you, at the arc of your own life. Instead, students tend to focus only on the short-term. I don't have time to write the paper, so I'll just download this one. Nevermind that plagiarism can and has ended collegiate and professional careers. Nevermind that it's usually incredibly easy for instructors to spot plagiarism in student writing. No, downloading a paper like this is just illustrating a broad-scale stupidity on the part of the student.

The problem is that we, as a culture, do not think about what we do on a larger scale. I'm not saying that we should be a culture of chess-players (though it wouldn't hurt), but we need to look up every so often. Most of us stumble around--like a cross-country runner trying to finish the race while only staring at her feet. We need to slow down for a moment; we've become so enamored with our ability to create--the product of which is often immediately available for public consumption (like this blog or emails or webcams)--that we don't think things through the way we would if, say, we were using a pen and paper.

Don't misunderstand: I'm no modern-day Luddite, and I'm not trying to the get toothpaste back in the tube by advocating a rejection of electronic technologies. All I want is for us to slow down. Maybe ease off on the quantity demands a bit and focus more on the quality demands. Instead of 4-6 page papers, try 3-5 pagers instead, but increase the standards a bit. Make students actually think about the arguments but also the paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and even words they use. It would take the same about of time but would yield much more thoughtful and well-wrought ideas, texts, and products.

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