Saturday, April 25, 2009

Poetry Grade Controversy omgomg

So I've been having a grade dispute with one of my professors, and I thought I would chronicle it here. My efforts awarded me with an additional 2.5 points spread between two assignments, with the class having a total of 100 points. This may or may not make this a significant number, but as I said to my room mates, it isn't necessarily about being right, or even hitting that elusive 4.0 grade - it's about using my institution-taught capacity to think cleverly and argue against the institution. Full details below. Note also that this is mostly for posterity.

First - the assignment description (Light formatting was done inside of the quotes).

"These five exercises are akin to gardening: planting a seed in good
soil, watering it, weeding it, and allowing it to grow naturally. The
process combines summary, analysis and response but I’m not asking for
these pieces to be strictly “academic” – in other words, they can be
“informal” in the sense that I invite you to respond personally to the
ideas of each writer and to connect each essay to your own work and
the work of the class. You may find yourself extrapolating and
traveling outward on a tributary. That’s okay, as long as I can
follow your thinking. Here are some guidelines:

Aim for about 750 words on each one (two or three pages).
Begin with one central idea from the essay that grabs you or relates
to your own process or life as a writer. Resist the urge to summarize
only – any chump can do that. I want you to consider each author’s
ideas and filter it through your own understanding and experience. You
may find some biographical information about the author to be useful
and elucidating – a bit of background research could be pleasurable
and useful.
Nonetheless, include several direct quotes from the author and be sure
to attribute clearly and gracefully. Convince me you’ve actually read
the piece and convince me you understand it or at least wrestled with
its “controlling ideas,” theses or central contentions.
If you’re stumped as to how to develop the annotation, consider the
following questions: How does this essay connect to other things you
know about poetry? What charms you most about this author’s ideas?
What do you agree with? Why? What do you disagree with? Why? How
might you use these ideas in your own work? What confuses you about
this author’s ideas? What feels “new” to you (or for you) in this
essay? How does this essay connect with others we’ve read? How do
the ideas of the essay affect you emotionally? What have other people
said about this author’s ideas?

(See back for initial list of essays for consideration)

Initial list of essays for consideration: I’ll be offering these to
you as we move through the semester. Some are available online; some
in collections in my possession.

“Filthy Lucre” (Wiman)
“The Limit” (Wiman)
“An Idea of Order”(Wiman)
“Can Poetry Matter?” (Gioia)
“Art of Poetry”(Horace)
“On the Sublime” (Longinus) – worth double credit
“One Body: Some Notes on Form” (Hass)
“Writing the Reader’s Life” (Dobyns)
“An Interview with Paris Review” (Larkin)"

The two annotations that would lead to the grade dispute are as follows:

Annotation #3: Obama, Machiavelli, and the Prince

"A bit of forewarning: as I’ve spent the entirety of the last two weeks writing about purely academic, literary concepts, I’d really like to explore something a little bit more political. Due to this, I’ve chosen to write about a chapter found in Howard Zinn’s Passionate Declarations, which is a rather large book, and can really best be summed up as a damnation of U.S. foreign and internal policy, as well as something of an attack against the ideologies that prop it up. That isn’t to say it’s anti-American; rather, it’s pro-humanist, and against the various policies that the U.S. has enacted that has been against the bettering of humanity as a whole. It’s kind of difficult to describe it succinctly, and it also doesn’t help that I haven’t read it in its entirety for well over a year.

That said, I did read the chapter called ‘Machiavellian Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy.’ Early in the chapter, Zinn lays out a variety of theories and political concepts that Machiavelli, the 16th century Italian statesman/political theorist, laid out. Chief among them is the notion that the means justify the ends, provided that the ends are good unto themselves. This concept has been used repeatedly throughout history to justify all manner of atrocities, including but not limited to, the bombing of Cambodia whom, when we were bombing, we were, officially, at peace with, and of pretty much conquering the entirety of Latin America for economic gain.

Arguments are often made that the actions taken south of Mexico were to preserve national security and to fend off the communists, but Zinn argues, persuasively, otherwise; he says that these actions, such as the Bay of Pigs incident and, before the socialist uprising of Fidel Castro, the installment of the despot Batista in Cuba, that we enacted not to stop communism - specifically, Russian communism, which could not have realistically invaded the U.S. from socialist Cuba, or any other part of South America (he cites the inability of the Russians to win a war with Afghanistan - on their own border - as proof of this) - but, as stated, to secure the economic interests of the U.S. He quotes a U.S. senator (unnamed, unfortunately) who, when asked about the U.S. essentially going to war with Panama over access to its canal, said simply, “We stole it fair and square.”

Zinn moves forward to describe another concept critical to Machiavellian politics; that of the Fox and the Lion. The Fox, he says, must deceive both his enemy and his people; lacking the raw power necessary to subdue them by force, he must convince them that his ways are the best ways. The Lion, he says, must alternatively crush his enemies, sometimes because, simply, he can, but most often because they are aware of the deception enacted by enemies.

Zinn extends this concept further, and labels “Advisors” as critical elements of both Lion and Fox methodologies. He uses the example of Henry Kissinger as a primary Fox - he was primarily responsible for the bombings of Cambodia, and has been implicated in a great many atrocities committed in southern Asia. Most importantly, it was, again, Kissinger that was responsible - not the Prince that he played Advisor to. By permitting Advisors to be the great movers of potential evil, it shields the Prince - who must always attend to either the love or the domination of his people - from damages incurred by actions done by the Advisor. This is what gives rise to the term, “plausible deniability,” and has been used throughout American history to commit a great many evils.

At this point, I would like to move away somewhat from the text and delve into current matters of politics. As we are all aware at this point, Barack Obama has become President, ushering in - we hope, and were promised - an era of progressive change. I’m tempted to even capitalize change because it was such a massively Big Idea, but is change what the American people are receiving?

Last week, Obama appointed the fifth RIAA - the Recording Industry Association of America - to the Department of Justice, most notably the guy that took Tanya Anderson to trial for sharing a handful of mp3s online. I cannot find, at the moment, his name, but just the same, the RIAA has been responsible for a series of lawsuits against individuals for sharing a variety of music files online. Most often, these were cases involving college students, single mothers, and other normal people - these are not wealthy people, nor are they people attempting to attain wealth by distributing music online. The RIAA sued them, in some cases - Tanya Anderson’s included - for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Somehow, these corporations felt that this was fair.

By appointing these RIAA lawyers to the DoJ, Obama has not demonstrated the Change that he was elected to produce - rather, it appears that he is pandering instead to the major businesses of our nation. This somewhat digresses from the Machiavellian concepts laid out earlier, and indeed, will be dissimilar for now - but what stance will Obama himself take when these lawyers begin using their cruel and evil tactics on people that deserve nowhere near as harsh of a treatment as they will receive? I imagine, he will say, that he has plausible deniability - that the DoJ lawyers were individually responsible, and not him. I seem to recall DoJ Chief Gonzales using this exact argument when allegations were brought against him. This is not the Change that I voted for.

Further damning, the Obama administration has invoked the ‘State Secret’ privelage multiple times since coming to office, most recently to protect both the federal government and the telecom companies from being sued by the American people for violating their Constitutional rights to privacy. The particularly painful part is that Obama himself, both before and during his Presidential bid, fought against exactly this kind of treatment of the American people. Again, this is not the Change that we voted for - rather, this is a continuation of the Bush/Cheney policies that have all but damned our nation in the eyes of the world. The following quote comes from a article that I found interesting, although possibly uncited, asking exactly the same question I have posited;
“Does it represent a continuation of the Bushies' obsession with putting secrecy and executive power above basic constitutional rights? Is it a sweeping power grab by the executive branch, that sets set a broad and dangerous precedent for future cases by asserting that the government has the right to get lawsuits dismissed merely by claiming that state secrets are at stake, without giving judges any discretion whatsoever?
In a word, yes.”1

So, at the least, it’s not just me that’s upset by this. I remember, before the actual election and during the campaign, speaking with some friends about this; “Man, if he fucks this up, then our entire generation will be as jaded as Kennedy’s after they shot him.” I’m beginning to fear that this is happening, and quite faster than anyone could have anticipated - although Obama has made many conciliatory moves on the international front, he remains positively damned on the home front. My fear in this is that he will continue hiding behind the Bush secrecy doctrine - why is this a fear? Because there can be no great Advisor, in the Machiavellian sense, than a policy that is utterly immune to prosecution."

Professor's response:

Grade: 1/5

Daniel, your writing is smart and lively but it's not about poetry. These annotations are supposed to be about poetry. No matter how well you wrote them, you missed the point of the assignment.

Annotation #5 - On the Obfuscation of Language

"Essay source: Language Myths. Ed. Laurie, Peter Trudgill. Penguin Books, London, 1998.

Depending on the order that you read this and the short essay composed for the final portfolio, you may be aware that one of my underlying goals in all of my education is the an understanding of words; not merely meanings, or how they interrelate with one another, but how they impact and influence people. An important aspect of this is whether or not people view not only words, but also the changing of words, as being particularly valid/correct. This concept is hit upon in a pair of essays found in Language Myths, a book that I forgot that I owned until looking around for something to write on for this annotation. Almost appropriately, the essays I will be focusing on - The Meaning of Words Should not be Allowed to Change, by Peter Trudgill, and America is Ruining the English Language, by John Algeo, are found, respectively, as the first and last essays in the book.

The first essay examines a variety of words that have changed over the last, oh, five hundred years - which, really, includes just about all of them. Trudgill attacks the notion that there is really a wrong way to use a word, and asserts that, so long as meaning and intent are clear, that it doesn’t particularly matter if they’re being used correctly. Indeed, he sums up his thesis towards the latter portion of the essay; “When is misuse not misuse? When everybody does it.” (Trudgill p. 7), and further, he states that “The fact is that none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means.” (Trudgill p. 7)

He uses a variety of words and phrases to demonstrate that, so long as intent and meaning are clear, that misuse isn’t terribly relevant - although he doesn’t state as much, he essentially views this as the further potential evolution of the English language. Among others, he explores usage of the words “uninterested” and “disinterested,” and explains how people use these words often interchangeably even though they have different meanings, and a little bit of how this may have occured; “They have, perhaps, heard the word disinterested and, not being aware of the meaning ‘neutral, unbiased’, they have started using it as the negative form of interested in the more recent sense.” (Trudgill p. 3) I found the essay pretty convincing although, to be fair, I already agreed with his standpoint.

The second essay, America is Ruining the English Language, explores the idea made clear in the title. He says that it isn’t, and his argument stems almost entirely from the following quotation: “Present-day British is no closer to that earlier form than present-day American is.” (Algeo p. 179) Even if it was a bastardized version, it wouldn’t really matter; “It is, in the great Anglo-American tradition, our God-given right to have our own opinions and to take it or leave it when it comes to style in couture, diet, entertainment, religion and language.” (Algro p. 178) What he is basically saying here - and, indeed, alludes to later in agreeance with Trudgill, is that language means whatever we, the users and creators of it, want it to mean and in general agree that it means. To quote again Trudgill; “Words do not mean what we as individuals might wish them to mean, but what speakers of the language in general want them to mean.” (Trudgill p. 8)

I accept both of these arguments as essentially a tacit endorsement of the abuses I so thoroughly enjoy inflicting on the English language. One of the concepts that has arisen from two writers in my Composition Theory class is that of the writer, student or author developing his or her own truth and, so long as the meaning is made clear to the reader, then that truth may stand pretty much as given. Of course, this becomes a little bit more complicated in poetry - one of the struggles that I’ve encountered is that just because I want something to mean something, doesn’t mean that you, or anyone else, will get that meaning from it. It’s something that I’m trying to work with, but my insistence on obfuscating things probably doesn’t help.

So, a set of procedural goals: to develop an archaic, complicated, and vague style that is somewhat-easily understood by my audience, and therefore valid. The trouble: the understood level of intelligence of my readers, and hoping that it’s relatively high so I can be abstract, and hope they’ll be willing to dig the thing apart to extract some sort of hidden meaning. A boy can dream."

Professor's response:

Grade: 2.5/5

"At least here you got around to poetry in the last two paragraphs, but again, this isn't really what I wanted you to do with the annotations. See comments on #3. I wish you'd have checked with me about these alternate articles."

Later that evening, I sent my professor the following request:

"Okay, moving along. I had some concerns with the scores that I received for my annotations - as they were already late, I understand if neither of the following are opportunities for me, but nonetheless I would like them to be considered. Here are what I hope my options are: A) the most straightforward, in which you allow me to rewrite, at least the annotation that was scored at 1/5, for even partial credit, or B) you allow me to present an argument for why both annotations should be scored higher - I have a series in mind that I believe are fairly compelling.

Thanks again,

Daniel A. Russ"

and her response, which came early the next morning:

"Obviously you were closer on the second one, as I indicated on the comments. But I had provided essays I wanted you to consider that touched on issues relevant to our class; if you selected others, you should have consulted with me first. As noted, your comments were smart and literate but not on the topics I wanted you to consider: at the least, you needed to make the links to the themes of the class clearer. This was an advanced poetry writing class -- I wanted you to consider issues of craft and to use poems/poetry as the substance of your discussions. I'm sure if you'd selected essays more pertinent to writing poetry, you'd have been equally articulate and received an appropiately higher score. My decision stands."

I don't really deal well with language like this from a professor of, of all things, English and poetry, so I sent her the following:

"I guess that the primary problem that I have with those grades is that nowhere in the assignment description does it say that I /have/ to use the provided essays - it merely says that the “[following list are an] initial list of essays for your consideration.” Further, one of the annotations that I received a 4.5/5 on - “Wiman on Milton in Guatemala” - wasn’t on the list.
Your second problem with the essays, that each essay was to be about poetry whereas mine were not, is also somewhat troublesome for me - nowhere in the assignment description was the rule, “This must be about poetry” laid out. Following, I’ll lay out what the requirements - quoted from the sheet say:
+“The process combines summary, analysis and response”
+“Aim for about 750 words on each one (two or three pages).”
+“Begin with one central idea from the essay that grabs you or relates to your own process or life as a writer.”
+“I want you to consider each author’s ideas and filter it through your own understanding and experience.”
+“ Convince me you’ve actually read the piece and convince me you understand it or at least wrestled with
its “controlling ideas,” theses or central contentions.”

The only actual mention of “poetry” made for the assignment guidelines are found in the “If you’re stumped, use these for potential thesis’” section - all of the rest, that fall in the ‘required’ section of assignment document, relate to “your process and life as a writer.” To return to my Wiman piece, only brief mention is made of poetry - it was much more about philosophy, theology, and EXPERIENCE than it was about the craft.

Finally - without actually arguing anything about a specific piece of writing - I’ve spent the vast majority of the semester breaking rules. My Lewis Carol Carol is an excellent example of that - I didn’t even read the assignment, but received a nearly perfect score on that unit of poems. You called it, among other things, a fun linguistic exercise - similar to how you called the pieces provided for Annotations 3 and 5 ‘smart and lively’. I really can’t help but feel like I’m being punished for thinking and acting slightly outside of the box, to use the cliche - more things relate to “my process and life as a writer” than just poetry - and although I’ve come to love poetry, I’m more than that, and felt that I should approach my final annotations with ‘getting better at something I don’t have experience doing’ than repeating assignments that I’d already completed and could have written with my hands tied behind my back.

While I can accept that, thematically, each annotation should have been about poetry - even thought it was never clearly stated as such - I have a hard time believing that Annotation 3 is really worth only 1/5. It followed each of the other directions that were laid out in the assignment document, and I .. lack the words to explain how I feel about a single, unstated ‘requirement’ being worth literally 80% of a grade.

Concerning the actual assignment rules, that’s about all I have - as I said, this doesn’t include any arguments specific to the annotations themselves. I have several in mind for each, and why they are both critical, in a sense, to not merely the arts themselves, but specifically to poetry."

A few hours later, I received both a grade adjustment and the following pair of messages, sent within moments of each other with no response from myself in the meantime:

New score for Annotation 3: 2.5/5
New score for Annotation 5: 3.5/5

"Because of your precocious and persistent arguments, I've slightly adjusted your scores. Don't push me further. It was a poetry class; you wrung about as much out of working outside the box as you should reasonably expect. Be grateful.


P.S. Rereading the assignment description myself, I see that I wrote "I invite you to respond personally to the ideas of each writer and to connect each essay to your own work and the work of the class." It's that last phrase that suggests where your last two annotations did not satisfy. Do I really need to hammer this further?"


Which I guess is something of a victory.

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