Saturday, October 4, 2008


Sorry, Jay Hilburn fans, I'm still working on that entry, and still trying to answer the title question, but, in the meantime, enjoy this obviously biased account of Thursday night's cringe-fest that Pat Buchanan still thinks -- oh, who cares what that racist fuck thinks? -- presented as an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, former college-level instructor (generally referred to by critics as "That asshole ex-musician, ex-videographer, ex-teacher who made jokes about Bush before it was important to do so") who is a warehouse manager/parts buyer living somewhere south of Oklahoma City that liberals try to pretend is a bastion of open-mindedness, but which actually is just another Oklahoma city with more pretensions and better food.

I was looking at myself in the mirror this morning, attempting to count the growing rings around my eyes and thinking in a paranoid manner when it finally hit me. The bar has hit the ground. No more limboing; you have to walk on top of the thing, or be atom-sized small.

I used to teach Freshman Comp at OU. Everyone teaches Freshman Comp at OU, because there are 17 million incoming freshmen each year at OU, and those people need to be reminded how to write, even though they've already had 12 years of writing-oriented classes. I taught it for 4-5 years, as I started a Master's Program that ultimately failed me -- there's another blog sometime -- and had the great fortune to gain a family in the meantime. I mean, where do your priorities go when that happens? How could I care about whether or not some freshman knows how to do MLA format when I'm missing CUDDLES FROM MY CHILD!? Oh, yes. It's my job. So I acted just like the head English Dept. Graduate Advisor and did not give a shit. Well, that's an overstatement.

I did give a shit.

Anyway, I was watching the reruns of the Biden-Palin debate and finally figured out exactly why I thought Biden won and Palin lost. I mean, besides the fact that he did better, and the bar had been lowered so far in Palin's case that all she needed to do was not use the word "thighs" in mixed company and she'd "win." And by win, I mean "survive", which is animal speak for "win".

Meaning, of course, that she wasn't eaten by a larger animal.

We used to teach these "units" in Freshman Comp, the first of which was an "Essay Exam" unit. It was a way of keeping students interested in the class by trying to provide them with a way to succeed at Essay Exams, a mainstay of colleges everywhere. The Dept. provided you with a teaching packet, and the students had to buy the Comp packet, which was overpriced and which I used to feel guilty about them buying, since I rarely used the whole thing and could not justify the expense. I mean, these kids could use the money to go to Bill's and drink heavily! By the way: Bill's, formerly Mr. Bill's, is the greatest bar ever. Just sayin'. Hic! Hic!

So, one of the exercises we used to go over in class was titled "Essay Exam Nightmares" -- ostensibly a way to show how people can avoid certain errors while preparing to take an exam. For me, it was the "Don't Do These Really Stupid, Perfectly Obvious Fuck-Ups So You'll Pass An Essay Exam" section, primarily because you would have to be an idiot not to understand these problems. This turned the Comp class into more of a Gateway class, where students learn about such things as time management, where certain skills are thrown at you so everyone can prepare the same way, because all students are the same, y'know. I betcha thooose students never considered how Joe Six-Pack could....

Sorry, got hijacked for a second. Anyway, the questions revolved around being in class for review sessions, not spending every waking hour working on a float of some sort, and this one, which always made me laugh, and which I never gave to the students to answer because I liked asking it in front of the class and giving my own version of the answer. Here it is, copied directly from the packet (all rights reserved -- OU English Dept.):

"Karen selects essay #3 on her American Literature exam. The question reads: 'Benjamin Franklin has been called the "first fixer and former of American political thought." (I usually pointed out the alliteration here. Nice touch.) Discuss (key word here) Franklin's contribution to American political thought. How does his life exemplify the myth of the self-made man in pursuit of the American dream?' Karen remembers a few details from Franklin's autobiography, but doesn't think Franklin's life was as interesting as her own grandfather's struggle to build his own business. She decides to focus upon her grandfather instead. The instructor will appreciate her ingenuity."

Right, she's going to bullshit, talk about what she thinks is important, and not answer the question. Certainly, her answer might contain some parts that do relate to the question, such as a definition of the "self-made man" or "maverick", and perhaps one or two details from Franklin's life. For the most part, though, she's going to try and bullshit her way through this, not because she actually thinks her grandfather's story is better, but she "remembers (a) few details from Franklin's life". This is shorthand for not actually knowing enough to answer, but enough to convince an uninformed person that she does.

I would ask the students what the answer to the "nightmare" would be, and several would yell out that she wasn't actually answering the question. "Of course," I would add. "Who gives a shit about her grandfather? Unless his business involved world conquering, he's not going to be anywhere near as interesting as Benjamin Franklin" -- a man about whom certain rumors persist: he had monkey-sex with every woman in the world.

Now, she's answering the question....sooooort of..... I mean, giving some answer is technically "answering" the question, and she might be able to make the connections, but she isn't actually answering the question, since the question itself involved Afghanistan, and not Energy. I mean, Benjamin Franklin and not her grandfather. As a grader, I would give her, at best, a "C-", especially if it was well written because -- and I want to make this perfectly clear -- she didn't answer the fucking question.

Which is what you're supposed to do: answer the fucking question you're asked, not the one you want to -- not the one you're prepared to answer. If she got away with this, I would blame the instructor for: 1. Not paying close enough attention to see that she hadn't actually answered; 2. Not forcing the student to do what was actually required; 3. Being distracted by the spin and the glasses and the Fargo-to-the-extreme accent, y'know -- shit, sorry, hijacked again -- and allowing that the student at least tried to answer. All of which is bullshit; the question wasn't answered.

If all you want to hear is something, you'll hear it. If all you want is competency, you can see it. If all you're after is survival, then the fact that you weren't eaten by the other animal is enough.

All of this is to say that Gwen Ifill did not do her job as moderator the other night, and Sarah Palin got to do what she wanted to do, which was talk about her fantastic grandfather's dry-cleaning business that he built from scratch like a true American, and which represents the self-made man better than Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of this nation, who caught syphilis from one of his 16,570 lovers, and who still may be alive today (1% certainty here).

What failed us the other night, and what no one seems to want to talk about, is that while Joe Biden knew what the fuck he was talking about, and could actually discuss (key word again!) the issues he was asked about, and which would give him at least a "B+" from me, Gwen Ifill allowed the other, cuter student to get away with bullshitting.

I, of course, would give the student a failing grade, because even though the answer might sound good (and we are really stretching the definition of the word "good" here), the student DIDN'T ANSWER THE FUCKING QUESTION!

I always had make-up exams, in case some students fell prey to one of the other "Exam Nightmares" -- staying up too late, not understanding the material, panicking, being Sarah Palin, all of the above (Sarah Palin again) -- because I was teaching a writing class, and my philosophy was that you could learn from your mistakes, and you should have a chance to fix them, if you were willing to do the work. This allowed students to make "A's" the next time, or at least "not fail".

SPECIAL NOTE: My former office mates, Mark and Janson, used to do something similar, but it involved doing drugs, having students murder certain people "who deserved it", and sexual favors of a Ben Franklin-ish sort.

SPECIAL SPECIAL NOTE: Absolutely none of that last section is true. NONE OF IT. Sorry, Lori (Janson's wife) and Elisha (Mark's wife).

EXTRA SPECIAL SPECIAL SPECIAL SECTION: Mark and Janson are both two of the greatest people I have ever had the chance to be around. I miss them terribly, in that I am terrible at missing people. I can't do it well.

So, as I stand here thinking paranoid thoughts in a Russian existentialist style, I hope like hell that people will re-check the answers Sarah Palin gave, because they are, for the most part, bullshitting-on-a-bad-student's-essay-exam level. I don't care how much they try to spin this, it's still bullshit, just swirled around a bit to make it look better.

Thank you, I'll be making really obvious comparisons all week! Drink up!


Janson said...

You know, we were just talking about this.

Not so much the murder/drugs part -- but the basic first-year comp. qualities that would daunt Governor Palin - if she were actually held the equivalent standards. It's rather staggering, really. I mean, pull out some basic Toulmin and not only are the warrants blowing free in the wind, but the grounds are also completely devoid. Again: staggering.

On a different note, how fantastic to see the Baudrillardian dream come true. Does Sarah Palin not impersonate Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin? How beautifully twisted is this brave new simulation?

I keep waiting for that dude from Robocop to show up as a pundit, defending Palin's argument by throwing cash in the air and screaming, "I'd buy THAT for a dollar!"

That would be cool. Or, if you prefer, KEWL.

Janson said...

Also: unicorns.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, though, by that standard both Obama and McCain would have gotten failing grades the Friday before.
For example:
"What would you cut from your budget in light of the recent economic events?"
"Well, I'll tell you what I would NOT cut..."

Judging from my experience with watching American political debates, answering a different question than you were asked is pretty much standard procedure.

At one point early in the debate, Ifill did say, "Neither of you really answered my question..."

And there's really not much else she could have done. If she had said, "All right, you just ignored my question, so try again to answer it," she's giving Palin an extra 90 seconds to speak. If she just berates her and moves on, then she'll be accused of showing bias and trying to sway the public's opinion of one candidate.

None of this is to imply that I support Sarah Palin, but I think that honestly Obama avoided questions just as much as she did.

Blasmo said...

Wow. Comparing Obama's performance to Palin's is ridiculous, at best. Certainly, vagueness exists in any debate, but her performance wasn't vague, it was pointless, in that it never made a point. She couldn't/wouldn't support any of her ideas, and Biden used specific after specific to support his. She changed the topic whenever she could, and defended herself against non-existent attacks, as though someone had told her to in advance, resembling Bush in his first debate against Kerry. Ifill's job was to keep order more than anything, and Palin did end-arounds without ever being corrected. If this meant her getting more than her 90 seconds, fine. It would at least show that she either could answer the question, or she wouldn't, and the latter would have revealed even more about her character than any SNL skit. At least Obama, in the one example you cite, answered a part of the question with some detail, unlike Palin, who avoided any attempt at substance. This is Karl Rove in a nutshell -- go for the idiots, because they'll take any sort of answer, as long as the person's head doesn't explode. And then they would have complimented her on the pretty fragments. Her use of Reagan's "City On A Hill" message, which was not about freedom, but the evils of Medicare, and contains a term originated by John Winthrop in the 1630's, was an attempt to lure more idiots into the fold by reminding them of the guy who said that white, male Christians were having their rights violated, and the country itself should always look at the sunnyside of life. If you're point is ultimately that debates are meaningless in our sound-bite society, and that they resemble the questions a Miss America pageant might use, then I agree. But to say that Palin and Obama resemble each other as debaters is like comparing Lincoln to that South Carolina Miss Teen contestant.

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying that Obama and Palin are like each other. One of them might be ready to lead this country, and the other definitely is not. I am saying only that they and McCain are alike in avoiding the questions on the debate. During the entire Presidential debate, my friends and I kept saying, "Answer the question!" to the screen because neither Obama nor McCain was doing so.
I'm not somehow saying it's inappropriate to criticize Palin. I'm saying it's unfair to single her out as being the one to not answer the debate questions, thus implying that the other candidates did answer them.
And no, Obama never said what he would not fund. It was a direct question, and he answered the opposite question.

Blasmo said...

BTW, Z, congrats on your engagement. I forgot to tell you that at the time.

Mark said...

I can't believe I haven't been on your page for twenty days (about the time I started my new job for the Deparment of Education). I also can't believe how much good stuff you've written since then (Elisha told me I needed to catch up). Work be damned: who cares about the constitutional rights of students subject to high stakes assessment exams?

Great post, Dave. I agree wholeheartedly from an evaluative perspective. The problem, of course, is that Palin's base perceived her as winning because they don't care about solid arguments; they're value laden creatures, absent reason. The left is often unfairly categorized as the party of lofty ideals, but in past two decades they have demonstrated a lot more pragmatism than the right, which consists of an unholy allience of idealogues: the fiscal conservatives, the neocons, and the moral culturalists. But you know this, already, and I'm rambling. MUST READ MORE!