Sunday, December 6, 2015

From the Archives - The Great TA Smackdown


When somebody disses me, I usually retaliate. I’m not talking about revenge, which attempts to fix one wrong with another, but about pursuing justice in a responsible, productive fashion. I had a highly satisfactory come-to-Jesus with a dickwad grad student Teaching Assistant back in ‘92. Back then, we didn’t have surveillance cameras everywhere, or bystanders with smartphones capturing video of every single human activity, so there’s no footage of the heated meeting this TA and I had in his office—which is a shame. This guy was totally outgunned. It was like he brought a toothpick to a knife fight, and I had a chainsaw. What I mean is, I came prepared.

The gist of my grievance was that I’d put extra work into my paper, which he quite literally ignored. See, in addition to analyzing Ernest Hemingway’s literary technique of “omission,” I wrote a short story of my own showcasing the technique. The TA couldn’t be bothered to read the story, and even though the analytical part of my paper stood on its own (focusing on Hemingway’s work, not on my story), the TA seemed to want to punish me for my originality by judging my paper very harshly. (You can read the story itself here, along with a brief explanation of the “omission” literary technique.)

So, how did I prepare for this confrontation? I imagined what I would write to this arrogant bastard if I were denied the chance to meet with him. This worked out very well; knowing he’d never see this written testimony meant I could blow off a little steam in the process. By the time I finished writing out my talking points, I’d dealt so harshly with this guy I almost felt sorry for him. I knew, going in to the meeting, that he’d be caught completely off guard, being a lazy and hapless little douchebag with an oddly underdeveloped intellect, and I wasn’t wrong. Boy I wish you could have seen me walk him through his sad menagerie of lameness. Perhaps reading this essay will help you imagine the stricken look on his face. (No, I didn’t terrorize him or anything ... I was just very, very firm. Perhaps I cut a more menacing figure than I would today; after all, I was a young college kid, full of the bluster and bravado of that species, and my pugnacious attitude hadn’t yet been sanded smooth by experience, perspective, and a fully formed prefrontal cortex.)

(Note: this wasn’t actually a TA per se, but a reader. The difference is that a reader only grades papers and isn’t burdened with providing any instruction sessions.)

March 31, 1992: To the TA who gave me a B-minus

In analyzing your text, which might as well be called “Notes to a lowly undergraduate on his paper,” I will spoon‑feed you in the typical college “thesis statement” style you evidently prefer. My thesis is: YOU SUCK. I will support this assertion by citing directly from your text.

You start by saying, “I appreciate weariness at having to write another critical paper . . .” (p. 1). This statement demonstrates that you have only skimmed over my paper. A closer reader would have noticed that I’d written, “I’m as weary of writing standard papers as I expect you are of reading them” (analysis, p. 9). I was trying to spare us both, and your statement of appreciation is obviously disingenuous.

The second part of your first sentence reads, “you should have consulted with a reader before deviating so far from that standard” (p. 1). The automatic question is, “What standard?” There is no antecedent to your use of “that.” Is there some standard you assume we are both operating from? In an attempt to discern what “standard” you are requiring of me, I have reread the three-page description of the assignment from the professor, and refer you to the following “Subject Matter Requirements and Suggestions”:
  • “You may write on a topic you invent” (handout, p. 1). This is exactly what I did.
  • “Your paper must have a thesis” (handout, p. 2). Mine does. I stated it on the first page of the analysis, and developed it in the first paragraph. You should have been able to find it because I preceded it immediately with, “despite my [two-part illustrative and analytical] approach, this paper has a thesis:” (note that my thesis statement directly followed the colon). I certainly didn’t deviate from this standard.
  • “Originality of thought is crucial to genuine learning” (handout, p. 2). Careful examination of my text (which, incidentally, includes actually reading it) will show that I embraced this requirement by writing a two‑part paper in order to offer true originality while also satisfying the other requirements.
Let us assume that these requirements and suggestions do not allow a two‑part paper: even in the second part of my paper alone, I did, in fact, “analyze the function of a particular stylistic device” (handout, p. 3) in complete adherence to the “Suggested Paper Topics.” That you feel I was “deviating so far from that standard” demonstrates your lack of understanding of even the second half of my project. In other words: YOU SUCK.

Next, you state, “Unfortunately, as we each have over 60 papers to read in a very short time, I was unable to read your story, so I must restrict my evaluation to your analysis of Hemingway” (p. 1). The ineffectiveness of this statement is remarkable. Consider: an undergraduate, busy with a college workload of his own, has committed far more time than required in order to make a more powerful paper, but his extra effort is completely ignored—and yet he is invited to feel sympathy for the one who has blown him off. The implicit suggestion here is that your time is worth more than mine. You are contemptuously implying here that I’m just a bored schmuck with too much time on his hands. This ties in neatly with my thesis: YOU SUCK.

In the next paragraph, you acknowledge that my examples are “representative” but conclude, “the analysis seems superficial” (p. 1). Look, it’s either superficial or it’s not—there’s no “seems.” Moreover, it’s actually your skimming of my analysis that’s superficial. You offer three “probing questions” which, you suggest, I should have addressed in my essay. Number one: “What is the point of forcing the reader into this sort of relationship with the omitted language?” (p. 1). I refer you to my opening paragraph: “Omission helps to develop characters realistically, to avoid sentimentality, and to draw the reader into the story” (analysis, p. 9). Had I not developed this assertion, you could have attacked me for that; instead, you wrongly state that I didn’t even ask the question.

The next “probing question” that you suggest I should have asked is, “Why does Hemingway omit certain kinds of information and not others?” (p. 1). I refer you again to the actual text of my analysis: “While commonly leaving out certain details, Hemingway’s technique of omission also requires adding certain other details to alert the reader that the character is evading his emotions” (analysis, p. 11). The examples I cite in explaining this earned two comments of “good” from you, written in the margin of my paper. How could you have appreciated my response to this “probing question” without noticing that I had addressed the question to begin with? Did you forget what you had read? Maybe under a little grad-student stress? Awwww.

The final “probing question” you claim I failed to ask is, “What are the limitations of omission?” (p. 1). Once again (and I am becoming annoyed at having to do this), I refer you to my text: “The reader can sense Jake’s feelings only because Hemingway has so thoroughly developed Jake as a character. One must consider the extent to which omission [in a short story] would need to be employed differently than in a novel . . . [given] the short story genre’s more limited development of its characters” (analysis, pp. 12‑13). Does this not address the question? Sure, maybe I could have gone on at greater length about this, but can you really claim I never even considered the question? Clearly, your assertion that I did not “ask more probing questions” is shortsighted; rather, you needed to probe my paper more deeply. Or, to put it more succinctly: YOU SUCK.

If you pause to think (just try it, for once!) you may realize that for any student to coincidentally pose, and address, the very “probing questions” you accuse him of failing to think of is a highly unlikely scenario. Could it be that you actually formulated these probing questions based on ideas you got from my paper itself? Might you actually be confusing your own intellectual output for mine? If you like my ideas enough to subconsciously attribute them to yourself, couldn’t you at least give me a better grade than a B-minus?

Amazingly, the final paragraph of your feedback is even worse than the first two. You state, “In short, your analysis, as it stands, could be condensed into a few paragraphs” (p. 1). I have tabulated the paragraphs of my analysis for you:

Introduction/thesis statement                             1 paragraph
Explanation of 2-fold project                             1 paragraph
Definition of “omission”                                    1 paragraph
Example from first Hemingway text                 1 paragraph
Examination of 1st “probing question”             3 paragraphs
Examination of 2nd “probing question”           1 paragraph
Examination of 3rd “probing question”            2 paragraphs
Example from second Hemingway text            1 paragraph
Evaluation of first half of paper                       1 paragraph
TOTAL                                                             12 paragraphs

Assuming that the two paragraphs devoted to tying the analysis into my story are totally worthless—a false assumption designed to cater to your laziness—we are still left with ten paragraphs. Both the Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries I have consulted define “few” as “not many but more than one.” Given your obvious impatience with quantities of written text, I’m sure you’ll agree that ten paragraphs qualifies as “many.”

Is it possible you’re accusing me of padding my paragraphs with useless text, such that most of my sentences could be removed without losing anything? That would be an absurd accusation indeed, considering that I bothered to write eight extra pages (i.e., the short story) in addition to the standard essay. Those who pad their paragraphs to meet the minimum page requirement don’t then blow past that minimum by eight pages. Moreover, my top ranking in the English major attests to the quality control—ergo, the concision—of my writing.

Your penultimate sentence reads, “From there you could have a started a truly interesting paper” (p. 1). The extraneous “a” in your sentence is not surprising, given your lack of scholastic precision. What is surprising is your brazen suggestion that I have not written an interesting paper. In light of the incredibly poor job you’ve done in evaluating my paper, your snobbery demonstrates my thesis beyond a shadow of a doubt: YOU SUCK.

One more thing. It wouldn’t be right to put forth a thesis of “YOU SUCK” without mounting a rude ad hominem attack. This comes very easily to me in your case; I can simply quote from my lecture notes of March 30:
Let’s have a look at R——, the TA who has incurred my wrath. Sitting up front, he wears a prim cotton pant-and-blouse getup, all black and without a trace of color save the chance lint that, even now, he brushes off vigorously. His hair has all the perfect arrangement of the molded plastic hairdo of Malibu Ken—but R——’s is real hair, artistically blown-dry and spiked, so it looks somewhat like a pruned hedge. His face and forehead are scrubbed shiny, so that he looks a bit like a doll. In short, his appearance suggests the obsessed grooming regimen of a true narcissist.
If you were to point out that an ad hominem attack shouldn’t be delivered in the third person, you’d actually be making sense, perhaps for the first time ever. This brings me to the last sentence of your critique: “Please consult me before your next paper” (p. 1). Acknowledging the limitations of the essay form, I will save my most vicious foul‑mouthed insults, along with a brutal, bare-knuckled beat-down, for your office hours tomorrow.

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