Stuff of Interest (From Papers I’m Grading)

While grading essays, I always encounter things that are interesting. I’ve decided to make note of a few of them, for a record if nothing else.

In my English & American Popular Culture course, we’ve been focused on early-20th century American pop culture, but the students have written essays about late-20th century pop culture.  (This is a way of giving them a chance to attack issues we haven’t discussed, as well as  a way of giving them more time to research what they want to discuss in their final papers.)

Anyway, some of the interesting moments, ideas, and thoughts that have occurred to me as I’ve been reading their essays:

  • Wow, okay, some students will always be resistant to what they think is an over-critical reading of something. I have a student in one class, for example, who thinks that our discussions of critical issues in global/international business means I’m teaching communism, a misunderstanding I’ll have to squash soon — which should be interesting since there’s a Chinese exchange student in the class. But this came up because of my pop culture class, where most students seemed to grasp that “The Magical Negro” functions in such a way as to reduce African-American characters to sidekick functions, to (traditional) helper roles, to romanticize the inequalities of wealth and education, and to primitivize African-Americans in media. A few essays referred to how similar exoticizations and mysticalizations of Asians in Western film seem to function in a similar way. But the one student who seemingly didn’t get it had to go all the way to Rush Limbaugh’s use of “Obama the Magic Negro” to argue that, well, the figure of the Magical Negro is a positive thing, helpful in showing whites that blacks aren’t bad or scary. Notes on that essay include comments on Limbaugh’s track record on race; notes on the necessity of understanding the comments by those offended by the trope before dismissing the offended response; questioning why Obama is a “Magic Negro” while Clinton and Bush didn’t need to be “magical white men” to be Presidents; and asking how much longer African-American actors should be expected to take insulting, emasculating/sexist, and otherwise problematic “Magical Negro” roles because they supposedly prove black people aren’t “bad”? (Surely the message had gotten through by now? And surely this is not the only message implicit in the role — peripheralization and subjugation and more must also be inherent in this kind of role?)
  • Huh. Thelma and Louise is a “chick flick” directed by Ridley Scott. Does the suicide pact at the end  (complete with lesbian kiss) imply pessimism, romanticism, or that both are inevitable? And how feminist is a film where the only forms of sexism presented are the bang-you-over-the-head forms, and the only seemingly-available form of resistance leads straight to death?
  • Wow. Even after several years of university, a surprising proportion of students can fail to have learned that essays need a thesis, supporting arguments, and evidence… and remain in university. Is it supposed to be this way?
  • There is a puzzling — or perhaps unsurprising — parallel between how the parents of participants in the hippie movement probably interpreted the movement, and the way a number of Koreans in their 20s today interpret it retrospectively.  The singular inability to recognize that the drug culture and free love (problematic as they both were) did not constitute a contradiction to what we could call hippie ideology, but were instead inherent to it, seems common in Korean assessments of the hippie movement. Thus it is seemingly seen as a “failed movement” essentially because it broke apart under the pressure of bad drugs and dirty sex. (Or so it seems from a few essays I’ve read over the years.) Also, the sense of violence as something that hippies perpetuated is absent the reality of interracial violence, the violence of the Vietnam war (which Americans were seeing on the nightly news in an unprecedented way), and the violence in the authorities’ response to antiwar protests all seem to be somehow absent from the analysis of violence  among hippies, or forms of violence romanticized by hippies (such as, among some, Charles Manson’s gang’s attack on Roman Polanski’s home and murder of his wife etc.).
  • Argh. I hate plagiarism. I hate it a lot when it’s artless and lazy, but I hate it worse when it’s the frilly, cut-and-chop kind that makes finding the sources slightly harder. But be warned: if you could find that PhD dissertation about Tupak Shakur’s messianic persona, well, so can I. My Google-fu is at least as good as yours, and I have anger on my side. And if you are planning to plagiarize? Don’t waste an hour of my time getting “advice” on your essay topic from me. And even worse is when a student technically lists a text in the bibliography but doesn’t note which ideas or passages are taken from it. (In the latter case, you get a second chance by going back and citing all your sources in-text, because it seems apparent that at least you’re not trying to fool me into thinking you had all those ideas yourself. But in the earlier cases I mentioned, you get F, period, no ifs, buts, ands.)
  • Yay for students who can read deeply, and recognize that appropriation is not always intercultural, but sometimes also intracultural — and sometimes sexism is defended as “traditional culture,” often through sanitization and erasure of forms of oppression, inequality, or other ills in a society!
  • Why do movies with so centrally American (or British, in the case of 007 James Bond) anxieties seem to appeal globally? (Or, at least, appeal enough to be consumed globally?) And how much of this consumption occurs despite the obviousness of the sexism, imperialism, racism, or whatever -ism is inherent in the film  to viewers worldwide? (Versus, how much of it appeals because the sexism, imperialism, racism, or whatever -ism in the film is familiar to global viewers and to some degree internalized by them through an experience of foreign media from a young age?)
  • To what degree are zombie films really just an expression of anomie in a society where a Copernican view of the world has finally jolted us from believing we’re the center of the universe? To what degree is the zombie movie an echo of  cultural memories of the black plague, the Spanish Flu, and even the great wars of the 20th Century?
  • Can you imagine James Bond being repackaged as a non-white male? Do you think that would be appropriate for the Bond franchise? Or is what’s needed a counterpoint of superspies who are of different races and sexes? Or is the superspy trope inherently imperialistic and racist and so on, so that racially and gender-wise diversity would be superficial responses to what is, deep-down, an inherently gendered, inherently Eurocentric trope? (By the way, are there films with Asian, African, Indian super-spies that function relatively similarly to the Bond franchise? Surely there must be Russian ones, and I imagine there must be Chinese ones (perhaps veiled in kung-fu) but how about from societies that weren’t power-players during the Cold War?)

I’m currently eight essays from the end of the Popular Culture course stack of midterm papers (a little over halfway), and  I’ve written approximately 6500 words of feedback. I find typing the feedback easier than writing it by hand, and faster too. I should finish this by sometime on Friday, when it will be time to move on to the Business Across Cultures stack —  which will  be much faster, with only eight papers in the pile. Then the writing classes, which I’ll do next week, and a small stack of assignments from the Popular Culture class once again. Busy busy!

6 thoughts on “Stuff of Interest (From Papers I’m Grading)

  1. “Wow. Even after several years of university, a surprising proportion of students can fail to have learned that essays need a thesis, supporting arguments, and evidence… and remain in university. Is it supposed to be this way?”

    In Korea, Yes.

  2. You know, actually, I already knew that was the answer. This morning in class some students were asking about teaching methods and stuff back West, and one of the things I highlighted was that — at least when and where I was an undergrad — if someone didn’t learn this stuff with something of a quickness, one ended up being a “December graduate.” The instructor for my first English Composition course (which I didn’t have to take in first year, but luckily I did) kicked my ass hard in terms of structure, having a thesis, supporting my arguments, and so on.

    I also noted that Western students tend less often to be provided with models of explication or exegesis, while Korean students get that a lot (however problematic it might be). Western students are constantly told, “Express an interpretation of X” but never see a model. In Korea, students seem to be given explications as received truth, but little or no training in expressing their own interpretations.

    Which explains (to me at least) why (my) brightest Korean students and the brightest students I taught in the West seem to about reach parity by senior year of university.

  3. Gord,

    The weird thing to me, is the backsliding. I can do exercises and model some of these things (simplest being a topic sentence), and they’ll get it right once, but then slide right back to the dilatory “oh, whoops, here we are at a conclusion,” Korean style of writing..

    Old habits die hard, I guess..

  4. I’ve noticed that too. One thing I think is maybe that the combination of (a) not having much practice at structured arguments in the Western way, plus (b) lots of last-minute essay writing, leads to the backslide.

    I’ve been exploring a very interesting approach using templates; if you want to know more, take me for (microbrewed) beer sometime and I’ll elaborate. :)

  5. I had originally wrote a page of rants for this comment, and realized that if I actually printed my rant, I would probably get ostricized at best and fired at worst. If we ever talk, I’ll give you the rant. The short version is that, good writing requires not just theoretical teaching on what is required, but also actual practice, feedback and re-writing. None of which any Korean schools are willing to do, in part because they are too busy teaching kids how to take tests, and in part because we are too busy or we do not care. Typcial Korean’s idea about fairness and transparency also plays a big part.

    Getting back to the lighter side, about James Bond, I think a tale of “a psychotic boy (though nowadays, it can be a girl…) who kills everyone who is not his friend, and has sex with every good looking woman that he sees” has universal appeal. Just look at some of Korea’s and the world’s most popular movies! (e.g. Kill Bill, or better, Oldboy. Japaese story and Korean movie – roughly follow this pattern). For myself, I judge Bond movies by how cute are the chicks, how nasty is the villain, and how neat are the gadget. Though I must say that I am enjoying Daniel Craig’s crueller Bond quite a bit.

  6. Junsok,

    Oh, no, the rant? It’s already here in my head too. In fact, when a student asked me what I do in the case where I suspect a Korean student has translation-plagiarized work from a Korean source, I said I’d like to be able to chase it down, but realistically, there’s only so much I can do when generally respect for intellectual property, and the teaching of writing in general, are both so low.

    When we do meet up, I’ll also tell you a tale of woe: a course that was designed by profs in my department to ensure students would get a basic grounding in reading and writing skills. It was supposed to be taught only by Korean profs; you can guess how long that lasted, as well as how much writing got taught in some of the classes. But I will highlight that some of my Korean colleagues recognize it’s a problem, even if like every teacher they’re not crazy about teaching composition.

    (Also, it seems to me the one thing that got students to learn composition in unis I attended was the use of sessional lecturers, and/or grad student “teaching assistants,” who taught courses focused on writing and which were compulsory for all students in all majors. It’s a helish job, but having someone do it is a step…

    Anyway, what I do is just try get students to learn how to write, reinforce it with handouts and guidelines, smack ’em (grade-wise and comments wise, not backhand-wise) when they slip back into the bad habits, and that’s as much energy as I put into it. which is a lot, but I’m not on a crusade to fix this. As I told one student, “This is not my problem to fix. I do my part, but it’s Korean academia that’s goinng to have to decide when and how to fix this more generally. However, in my classroom, I get to draw the line in the sand, and I draw it here.

    By the way, ostracized? Fired? I doubt anyone else at CUK besides you reads this, or would even bother. Except the occasional student… or do you know something I don’t?

    On Bond… heh, I’ve always thought the gadgets were the biggest attraction, followed by the Bond girls, and lastly the villains. (Who do very little for me.)

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