Thursday, June 3, 2010

when in doubt — run

I've actually finally gotten fed up with the whole 'grades' thing — which has made me realize that it's probably time to quit. Which has made me realize that when I think such things, I act on them. I don't quit — I run. Fast.

I always knew that it would come to this. That one day I'd read a paper or a phrase or just a misspelled word and it would push me over the edge. It happened this past Winter Session in my Magic, Science and Religion intersession class: a whole semester's worth of the weird stuff crammed into 10 or 11 days. Designed for sensory overload, that's for sure. I don't remember what the line was. Should have written it down. But I do remember the overall subject:

Joseph Campbell.

And the thing is that Joseph Campbell actually does have something worth saying, reading, thinking about — but nobody seems to get that far. Reading Campbell takes patience. It's not just about about heroes and follow-your-bliss. But that's all I ever seemed to get.

Here was the problem: There were not one, not two, but three bloody papers on Joseph Campbell in the stack. And two of them were back to back. And I burned out just like that.
And it was time to quit.

That last sentence, whatever it was, paralyzed me, blinded me — it was that powerful — and I couldn't grade another single paper. It's happened before. Then I read the offensive line to someone else, and they become paralyzed by it, and I'm temporarily cured and can get on with it.

But here's the thing. The very next semester I got hit with something worse. And this time I copied it down. So here's the sentence. From my Middle East class. And this part is true:

"Throughout the history the evil and good has been a religion or its minorities at a time"

You're welcome to translate it for me.


  1. Translation is actually quite easy: You must retire now!

    Oh and... welcome to the blogosphere.

  2. "Every day in any how I'm getting more and if so what."

    My friend Stella's mind-bending affirmation. I have a feeling that sie and your student were mining the same grammatical vein.

  3. PS: Even G, who says, "I don't write like a normal writer sometimes" and who has probably committed more of her share of sentences like that than anyone I know agrees with you. I read it aloud and she said, "That makes no sense. It doesn't even give off a vibe that makes sense. There's no breaking it into pieces or correcting it a little that would make it make sense. It just...makes no sense."

  4. Ooooh, now THAT'S a lovely sentence: "It doesn't even give off a vibe that makes sense." Now I realize how much I'm attached to the aesthetics of writing!

  5. Oh, how I used to agonize over papers for your class! (Thus, why I turned in very few of them.)

    One of the most painful experiences of my college coursework was peer-editing other students' papers. I think the only way I'd manage to grade so many at a time is if I could make a game out of it.

    Perhaps when you get a terrible sentence such as this, you should put it in a computer randomizer and turn it into an oracle of sorts. You could have the iChing of quasi-mystical student gibberish! You could probably sell it and get rich; it's like a retirement plan for that day that you finally get so fed up that you cannot continue.

  6. @tyrsalvia On Facebook, I mentioned that I think it's an incantation or spell. I just can't figure out what it does. Of course, it may be that I have been reading so many Judeo-arabic spells that my brain has been permanently bent that way; I'm not sure yet.

    @mira Re: vibe. G often writes sentences and entire paragraphs that defy traditional grammar as English speakers know it. Those sentences sound as if they were translated via Babelfish from some other language. However, like other kinds of computer translations, they usually have a kind of aura of sense about them that it's possible to discern if one just relaxes and soaks in the vibe of the sentence. It's sort of like unfocusing one's eyes to be able to see those "Magic Eye" pictures people used to have in the 80's-90's.

    She and I attempted to apply that technique to the sentence you proferred, but no amount of chill unfocused experiencing of the sentence's vibe was able to manifest meaning in it. It is a masterpiece of semantic incomprehensibility. Wow.

  7. "An aura of sense" — another spectacular phrase, and I'll bet G has loads of spectacular phrases. Think poetry, Dylan, or Ginsburg, or languages we don't even understand (Nusrat's singing comes to mind...). We live for the "aura of sense" and the thing about magical incantations, is that even they have to communicate... if only to the 'beyond.' Before you know it, we're in the world of speaking in tongues ... The key point here being: I don't have to put a grade on it!

  8. In Princeton's online encyclopedia I just read a clinical def. of aura as "a sensation (as of a cold breeze or bright light) that precedes the onset of certain disorders such as a migraine attack or epileptic seizure".

    Thus, headaches notwithstanding, bad writing that doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Though the better paraphrasing of Nietzsche here might be "Not when writing is dirty, but when it is shallow, does the enlightened woman dislike to wade into its waters."


  9. ah, Nick, I love both those thoughts! Problem is that it feels like the bad writing WILL kill us — by giving us those migraines...

  10. I'm pretty sure parts of King James and most if not all of the Book of Mormon are worse.

  11. but then the default setting is, surely that this must be Mystical ... and therefore ineffable (or the opposite) ... and therefore beyond reason ...

    And why am I still banging my head into the wall?

    Maybe, as the comments above suggest, I should be treating these papers as mystical missives...

    I'll have to ask about King James and Book of Mormon, since I haven't read either. I stick to Aryeh Kaplan's bilingual editions of sacred text as much as I can...

  12. King James is just a hopeless poetification into a particularly regrettable phase of the English language's life. Anytime a Jesoid belts you with a passage full of thous and haths, it's King James coming at you. Don't bother. For an English resource incl. New Testament, it's the Oxford Study Bible you want, trust me.

    As for the Book of Mormon, it's just the transcribed gibberish of an hallucinating Joseph Smith. (Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven is a worthy read.) it just plain doesn't grok. If you open it and point randomly to any passage, the odds of finding a sentence that has normal grammatical features like both a subject and verb are extremely low. But perhaps I'm being too picky expecting religious sources to be syntactically well behaved?

    I do appreciate the idea of getting the vibe of a sentence. In my work in software translation, I've had hours of conversation across language barriers (over highly technical subject matter, yet), and if you can't embrace gisting as a listening strategy, you might as well fly home. Alas, I am unable to gist anything from the bite of word salad you shared.

    As for the head-banging, better you than me. I can barely stand to teach horn. I've dabbled at editing but always given up when I realize that most writers don't need editors or even proofreaders; they need thinkers!

    Wouldn't mystical missives require a spiritual bone or two? I ask for information. I don't have any of them either, and mystical ways of knowing are beyond my comprehension.