Four Words to Avoid When Writing English Essays

OK, this post is for all the undergrads out there who will be writing English essays for me (or frankly for anyone else) in the future. There are a few words that you really need to eliminate from your writing in order to make your prose more concise, analytically rigorous, and meaningful. Of course, I can only speak to my own experience as a professor here, but damn, these words are meaningless. Don’t use them.

  1. Effective
  2. Accurate
  3. Important
  4. Successful
Alrighty then, let’s go through these one at a time, shall we?

1. “Effective”

This word crops up a lot in papers on poetry and Shakespeare and I am always a bit confused as to what it means. It usually crops up in two ways. First, as a kind of disingenuous intensifier; second, as a way of signalling basic comprehension of the text.

The problem is that “effective” actually can be a term of analysis when you start applying it to basic rhetorical analysis. That is, it makes perfect sense to say that Brutus’ speech in Julius Caesar was not effective. Why not? Well, it didn’t convince the Roman people, but Mark Antony’s speech really did rile them up. 

And just look at how pretty he is… that is part of his effectiveness… no, seriously!

Thus, you can use “effective” as a way of opening up a discussion about the rhetorical distinctions between those two speeches. One posits the audience in this way, the other posits the audience in this other way; one uses metaphor in this way, the other uses metaphor in that way. This form of analysis is always looking to the audience, investigating the relationship with the audience and what “the audience” means.

Too often, however, “effective” in papers ends up presuming that “audience” is identical with “me, the student writing this paper.” To such a student, a text therefore becomes “effective” if that student comprehends the text.  

“Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover is an effective 
statement about the beauty of nature.”

Well, yes… sort of… but that, at best, is only showing that the student has reached the very bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but is trying to sound like something more advanced is going on.  

One version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

In university, it is great that you “get” the text. But so what? Now that you “get” it, what are you going to do with it? The point of literary study after all isn’t just to memorize texts and their basic meanings. We do things with words. That’s the fun part.

2. “Accurate”

This is another of those cases where the word sounds like it is signalling some form of analysis, but really all it is doing is saying “look, I understood the words on the page!”  Again, that’s great, but there’s more to university literary study than simply “getting” a text.

When I’ve seen this in the past, it has come up in regards to the terms of representation. That is, all texts are representations, and representations have a fraught relationship with reality. Indeed, there might not even be an accessible reality underneath it all, if the post-modern theorists like Jean Baudrillard are correct. Dealing with representations, where those representations are not derivatives of a prior, authentic, “real” original is a hard concept to wrap your mind around, I know.

It`s so much easier to think in terms of `truth`and `lies.`

So it is not surprising that people want to say things like “Shakespeare`s representation of gender in the early modern period is accurate.” That said, what the hell does that even mean? Does it mean that Shakespeare in this text provided a completely descriptive model of what “gender” meant in the early modern period? Does it mean that he provided a partially descriptive model of one aspect of gender, which may or may not be complicated or refuted by other aspects of gender in the early modern period? Hell, for that matter, what do you mean by “gender”? Gender presentation? Policing? Gender bending? Gender as power? Gender as… well, you get the idea.

It’s almost like trying to say there’s a reality that is X. There is a representation that is Y. Now write a compare and contrast between X and Y. Wow, they overlap! I guess Y is accurate.

The problem is that there is no reality that you have access to as a student. There is ONLY representation. Every book you read is a representation (of a historical moment, of a poem, of an individual), even the history books aren’t the real events themselves, but representations of history. So at best, what you end up saying is there is this representation that is Y. There are a bunch of other representations, A, B, C, that all say the same thing. Well, Y is accurate.

That’s not accuracy. That’s intersubjective agreement. If you want accuracy, go to Engineering.

3. “Important”

A personal pet peeve of mine.

Never say something is important. It wastes words and says nothing. 

You may as well just write this.

One (very old-school) way to think about an English essay is that you are being asked to show how a text works. It’s like being told to explain how a car works. Now, you can talk all about the car and all the details of it, but if you say “the brake is important,” then that’s just wonderful, but what the hell does this “brake” thing do? How does it work? Is there one component or many? What does it add or take away from the overall purpose of this “car” of which you speak?

Also, which part is it?

Texts that we study in university are usually as, if not more, complex than your average VW Golf. If all you tell me about Isabella Whitney’s use of geography in her poetry is that it is “important,” then you’ve done no real analysis. On the other hand, if you tell me that it is important and here’s why, then why did you need to say it was important?

That is, if you explain what a “brake” does in a car, it is self-evident why it would be important for the functioning of the vehicle. You don’t have to then add “isn’t that important?!” Similarly, if you show how geography informs Isabella Whitney’s poetry, then you don’t have to add how important it is. It is self-evident from the explanation. 

Seriously, read Isabella Whitney’s Last Will and Testament. She’s awesome.

Finally, there is another reason why you should avoid saying “important.” I said above that in university literary analysis we do things with words. We tear them apart; we put them back together in new ways; we burrow into the different ways that they are related to each other; we fill old words with new meanings; we trace the changes in meanings of individual words… we do a lot. None of it is “important” – but then nothing is. That isn’t to say you should dive into the depths of existential despair, but that without being tied to the idea that what we do is “important,” we can play. We can seek Jouissance.

4. “Successful”

This is closely related to all the other ones insofar as the use is predicated on a misunderstanding of texts-as-representations. That is, what does it mean for a text to be “successful”? 

When I get this, usually students aren’t talking about sales or box office, so that metric is out the window. Usually students seem to talk about a text being successful if the text communicates some larger thematic concern: “Macbeth successfully depicts the struggle between good and evil.” 

Is this what it is to depict the struggle unsuccessfully?

Of course, all this actually means is that the student has identified a certain thematic element within the text and wants to communicate that. Whether or not those thematic elements are, in fact, in the text is another matter entirely.

Another way to think about why this word doesn’t work is to ask, why is one text successful and another not? I’ve seen this word attributed most often to Hamlet, to be honest. Undergrads seem fairly certain that Hamlet is a successful text. OK, fair enough. But why is Hamlet successful and, say, The Room is not?

Really, how different is this from “O that this too too solid flesh would melt…”?

When you start exploring that question, you have to start looking into how texts produce meanings and shape them, as well as how those meanings are determined and shaped by certain cultural moments, generic proscriptions, and audience expectations. Suddenly, the interest is not about how one works well and the other doesn’t – a matter of taste – but how both texts work in terms of what they do and how they do it.

Ultimately, as a professor of English, I don’t care about your taste. Like Shakespeare, don’t like Shakespeare; either way works for me. Tell me that you think he’s successful, sure, fine… I don’t care. What I do care about is that you are seeing how the text is both shaping you and shaped by you. I want you to move beyond knee-jerk aesthetic judgments and into analysis of the text that isn’t a matter of “success” or “failure.”

After all, as far as I’m concerned, all texts fail to communicate. In fact, that’s the most interesting part of them. But that’s probably for another time.


I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Unless I Do): Emotional Labour in University Teaching

Some friends of mine do a podcast called Witch Please, about the world of Harry Potter. They are scholars out of the University of Alberta and much of what they end up talking about it related to teaching and pedagogy at Hogwarts. I often completely agree with them (for instance, that Hufflepuff is the only house that really values education); I often completely disagree with them (honestly, I may be a monster, but Cedric Diggory’s death was just SO contrived). Nevertheless, they have recently been talking about emotional labour in their podcasts and somehow it has got into the back of my head.

Seriously, go check it out.  I’ll wait.

Emotional labour is one of those feminist issues that I’ve never really dug into before. No real reason I guess, just never really thought too much about it. Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment, universal course design, students with disabilities, and my increasing sense of frustration and exhaustion and I’m wondering if the concept of emotional labour might help me to articulate what it is I’m feeling regarding teaching.

“That is, when a professor’s ability to assess a student’s capacity to participate in the discourse or discipline is removed or hindered by the administration in a misguided (mis-)application of universal instruction design — in other words, passing a student because the student will be emotionally traumatized by failure — the course ceases to be about participating in a discourse or discipline and becomes instead infantilizing, othering, and disenfranchising.”

In some of the studies I’ve been reading regarding education and working with students with learning disabilities, I’m not surprised to see that students who feel that their instructor is empathetic and approachable end up doing better. For instance, 

  • Ouellett (“Faculty Development and Universal Instruction Design” in Equity and Excellence in Education 2004) notes that there are many advantages to profs knowing their students, not least of which is tailoring appropriate supports to students who may need extra help.
  • Rose and Meyer (Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age 2002) argue that “affective networks” are necessary for engaging and motivating students, especially students with disabilities. Getting to know your students allows you to communicate your passion for the material and thereby motivate them to do well.
  • Another study (Elacqua et al Perceptions of Classroom Accommodations Among College Students with Disabilities 1996) came to the somewhat unsurprising conclusion that, for students with disabilities, the experience of asking for accommodations can be stressful. Such stress is reduced when students feel that the professor is empathetic and supportive.

I know, none of this is terribly surprising to me, either. Teaching is a very personal thing, predicated on individual relationships that sometimes last an entire lifetime. 

There’s a big distinction in my mind (at least at the moment) regarding setting up a classroom in which everyone is respected and reasonable accommodations are met for a wide range of disabilities and setting up a classroom in which the professor is asked tacitly or explicitly to take on the emotional labour of the students. I worry that the latter is the conclusion that some university and school board administrations are coming to from studies like the ones I just quoted (and others). That is, when a professor’s ability to assess a student’s capacity to participate in the discourse or discipline is removed or hindered by the administration in a misguided (mis-)application of universal instruction design — in other words, passing a student because the student will be emotionally traumatized by failure — the course ceases to be about participating in a discourse or discipline and becomes instead infantilizing, othering, and disenfranchising.

Students with strong social networks and well-developed relationships with professors will tend to do better in classes, this is true. It’s one of the reasons why I give my students access to my Facebook, my Twitter, my YouTube, and whatever other social media I belong to. I want students to use me as a resource. If you want to learn about Shakespeare or poetry or theatre or what have you… I’m here to help!

That said, I can’t be anyone’s friend while they are my student.  Obviously. 

Montaigne probably put it best. One cannot be friends with someone who has power over you because you will always be beholden unto that person. Students want something from professors – to pass the course. It is perverse to demand both a hierarchical organization of power and a distributed organization at the same time about the same topic. It’s not that professors are like princes were to Montaigne – better than their subjects. It’s that when it comes to the particular topic at hand (for me, Shakespeare), the professor is the expert in the discipline who is judging the student’s capacity to participate in that discourse. Yes, I’m always judging you. That’s my job.

Further, I maintain the right to choose my friends based on my own personal inclinations and desires. I don`t think anyone will judge me too harshly for keeping that right to myself.  Friends do emotional labour for other friends. We cry on each other`s shoulders and we get drunk with each other when one of us goes through a break up. It`s a labour that is unpaid, that is shitty, that is hard, and it is incredibly difficult. You can`t pay people enough for genuine emotional labour. It has to come from a choice.

In the attempt to set up a classroom that is empathetic and supportive, I worry that it is too easy for those terms to slip over into emotional labour. It isn’t always the case, but it can certainly happen that administrators and even professors themselves can start to see themselves more as the student’s advocate and friend than as the person who is assessing them. A professor can be a part of a student`s “affective network” – but only so much. At some point we have to step back. We have to assess them, after all. We have to say, “Yes, you have mastered this discourse,” or “No, you have not the skill yet.” 

This is further complicated by the fact that, for many students, failure to master the material in a course or to satisfactorily participate in a discourse represents a statement about their personal self-worth as a human being. Obviously this too is not true. I mean, I’m only telling a student that they did poorly in Shakespeare – I have no idea if they are a decent human being or not!

“Friends do emotional labour for other friends. We cry on each other`s shoulders and we get drunk with each other when one of us goes through a break up. It`s a labour that is unpaid, that is shitty, that is hard, and it is incredibly difficult. You can`t pay people enough for genuine emotional labour. It has to come from a choice.”

Nevertheless, I worry that the 20+ years of educational theory’s focus on changing the role of the professor away from the “sage on the stage” and towards being a part of an “affective network” can be (mis-)understood as being the role of the professor to be the friend of the student as the student sees their academic worth as being inexorably tied to their self-worth as a person. Friends worry about friends’ self-worth as persons. As a professor, I’m only paid to worry about a student’s capacity to participate in a discourse. To ask more of me is to ask me to engage in emotional labour for free.

It’s something of a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, students are brought up with an expectation of their own academic sufficiency such that failure to navigate the terms of a discipline is met with overwhelming emotional distress — just look at the droves of students who are being treated for anxiety disorders.  On the other hand professors are being encouraged to take on a culturally feminized position of caregiver and friend, while not being compensated for the emotional labour that position entails.

Please note, I’m not of the Snape school of pedagogy. I’m not saying that the other role that is available to teachers is to start humiliating our students and belittling them, like Snape does to Harry Potter. Rather, what I think I am saying is that we have to, of course, 

  1. create syllabi that are universal in design; 
  2. help our students to recognize that failure is always an option and that doesn’t mean the end of the world, and; 
  3. protect ourselves from being forced into emotional labour that we don’t want to do, in the name of a job that doesn’t repay us for such labour.

In the end, I’ve made friends with many of my former students. Some are quite close friends now (though I haven’t cried on any of their shoulders, that may say more about my propensity to cry in general). That said, I like to think we chose our friendship, rather than having such a relationship forced upon us by the mandarins of educational theory.

I don’t know – maybe I’m just sour at the moment. I’m certainly open to having my mind changed. What do you think? Am I just being a privileged, white, male prick/Snape-wannabe? Or am I missing something altogether from my reading of the problem? Please let me know in the comments.

EN245 – Done the Lecture Scripts!

I’ve just written my last lecture for EN245, a course I foolishly decided I would flip… because that’s what all the books these days say you are supposed to do. I’ve decided that those books are wrong.

  • After writing 140 000 words of text
  • After creating over 12 hours of videos
  • After creating dozens of activities and games to help the learning process
  • After knowing (seriously) that sometimes even my best students don’t read the primary text (Twelfth Night, I’m looking at you)
  • After staring at the computer screen so long my eyes hurt and my body is in a permanent state of discomfort
  • After being so frustrated with the whole process that I’ve actually had people come up to me and say “what’s wrong?”
  • After working 700% more hours than are in my contract such that my hourly pay is somewhere south of $5/hr…

I can finally say, I’ve done the impossible. I’ve got most of the way through this course and I have my sanity still. I’m still considering how I can turn this into a regular thing, but hey, I’m mostly done. I have to figure out how I can talk about this at Congress next year without it turning into a bitch-fest, but I’m sure I can come up with something.

Dear god, I need scotch.

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim

I made a few videos for a class I am teaching on the English Literary Tradition. These are only part of the class, obviously, but I thought I would share them with whomever it is who would be interested in medieval theatre and one of the greatest unsung playwrights of all time.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation… an Adjunct’s Perspective

After three weeks of working pretty much flat out, I’ve completed work on the first half of my EN245 course at WLU for the fall, which is going to be a flipped classroom. My advice for adjuncts: don’t flip if you can help it. There’s way too much prep involved.

I taught myself how to use PowerDirector 13, how to get a good quality audio recording, where I could find decent images, and all this while creating scripts and trying to read the texts. My head is a little spinny right now, I admit.

Nevertheless, if you are interested, you can take a look at the part of my course that will be hosted on YouTube. It’s a little fragmented because I’ve cut the course in 3 and have text-only, audio/audio and text, and video/video and text parts. Some of the scripting I could have done better with more time, I admit it.

I misspeak in places and my accents are just… well, the less said about them, the better. The second half of the course should be (I hope) better.

Below are just a few videos that I’ve attached because why the hell not?

Five Minute Papers EN 3170 & EN 393

Shakespearean Authorship
The More Household
Education in the Early Tudor Period
Random Questions
My Own Privileges
Miscellaneous Questions and Admin
LGBTQ Questions
Margaret More Roper Questions
Utopia Questions

ML 300 Syllabus Draft

So I’m doing something different – I’m proposing a medieval studies course for the fall and I want to know what students are actually interested in studying/what other people think. I’ve uploaded a copy of the proposed syllabus to Gdocs and I’m going to let people just do whatever they want to it to help it along. Let me know what you think?