Last night I met with each of my students individually to discuss their progress on their informative essays. Last week I had given each of them a separate slip of paper with a topic and a little blurb about it. This, I admit, was done with completely selfish motives. First, our department chair asked us not to teach or allow the students to write how-to essays (thank goodness)--so I am automatically spared having to read pages on how to fry an egg, how to repair a bicycle, and so on.
I also wanted to spare myself having to read more of the same ilk as their exploratory essays. I (foolishly) let them pick their own topics, saying, "What question interests you? You can pick anything that captures your fancy and research it to find answers. Isn't that exciting? Go ahead!" One or two students actually picked something interesting--for example, my star student, who is an adult returning to school to get her nursing degree, has a friend with dissociative disorder so she wrote on that. My other unexpectedly gratifying student is an Iraq vet (who looks all of 20 years old) who wrote on the connection between fast food and obesity. But most of the rest were an abysmal collection of lame stuff you could cull from a cursory glance at the Internet or a public service pamphlet.
So when informative essay time came around, I decided to outwit them. I'm trying to teach them about investigative reporting and news analysis in this whole process, as well as to be curious about people, their surroundings, what motivates human behavior. I picked mysterious and controversial historical subjects, which to me are captivating and even thrilling. My double motive is that not only would they churn out papers that would be remotely interesting for me to read but also that their own interest and imagination might be piqued in something as well. That is why I gave them topics such as: Jim Jones & Jonestown, Pompeii & Herculaneum, the Cambridge 5, Hitler's niece--Geli Raubal, Leopold & Loeb, the Chappaquiddick incident, you get the idea. I had also deliberately picked topics that have a plethora of information about them so that no one could say they couldn't find anything (I'm naive that way, as I was to discover).
As I said, last night I met with them to talk about what they'd found so far. Let me say first though that a couple of students were actually gratifying. The woman whom I had assigned Juliet Hulme & Pauline Parker (now that is a bizarre story if there ever was one) had pages of notes and had already rented the movie "Heavenly Creatures." She said she was fascinated by the whole thing. My star nursing student whom I assigned the Klaus & Sunny von Bulow case is already deciding how to best fit in Alan Dershowitz's criminal law philosophy into her paper.
I should be satisfied, right? But those are the exception. Then, there are the rest, the buzz-wreckers. First, there's my student with magenta hair, and by the way I don't judge him for having magenta hair, I judge him for being lazy and a terrible writer. He wears headphones constantly. And not little iPod earbuds or anything, great big Bose-type headphones like radio announcers wear. On his previous paper, I finally just gave up and wrote, "Grammar and sentence structure issues abound." He declined to even meet with me last night. Some people might say I should force students to meet with me, but I've learned from previous classes. I had another student like that who had earlier written an essay about how his heroes are John Gotti and Al Capone. I'm gonna make this guy to talk to me? Not likely. Magenta Headphone Man's heroes might be Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy, so I'm not going to push the issue.
Then there was the girl I assigned the Cottingly Fairy photographs. She thought I wanted her to write the entire paper (7 pages) on the photographs themselves. No history, no motivation, no involvement by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whatever. When I told her, "No, no, no, I want you to write about the whole incident and the impact it had on society at the time. There's an interesting children's movie about it called 'Fairy Story' that you should really see--it presents the whole thing from the children's point of view and gives you a lot of background." She said, "Oh, if I can write about more than just the photos, I don't really need to see it." Well, OK then.
Then there was the guy who's writing about Amelia Earhart. Again I said, "There's a major motion picture coming out about her this very month!" and he replied, "I guess if it comes out before the paper's due, I'll try to go." Sigh. Don't you have any intellectual curiosity?
There was the guy writing on the last Romanov family. I told him, "The definitive work on the Romanovs and their assassination is by Robert Massie. It's about a thousand pages and has all sorts of never-before seen photographs--it's so cool!" He just looked at me, then said, "Yeah, I think I found some stuff on the Internet about them."
And then there's the woman writing on the Lindbergh kidnapping who said, "I don't get this. You told us to do an analysis [which she could not pronounce] and talk about Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Where exactly are we supposed to write about that?" Me: [deep breath] In your paper. Your informative paper. This one we're working on. Throughout the whole paper. Her: Ohhhh. So like, in the introduction, body, and conclusion?
Lastly (oh, I could give more examples, but I'll stop here) there's my Goth student who I had used to have such high hopes for. He came to me and said, "I can't find anything on my topic." His topic is...wait for it...Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I asked, "Have you tried the library?" He looked blankly at me. "The library?" Yes, you know, the place where they keep all the books? Me: You should really try the library--either the one here at school or the public library or both. I will pretty much guarantee they have something about the Rosenbergs there. Him, sighing resignedly: Well, OK, I guess I could try there and see if there is anything.
Over the weekend, the department chair contacted me to see what section of writing I would like to teach this spring. To see the nature of my response, you'll need to watch the first 25 seconds of this trailer: