Productive Complaining

Last semester was probably the worst experience I’ve ever had teaching a First Year Composition course. While I had hoped my students would see me as an ally, someone invested in their success, many of them never got over the feeling that – by giving them criticism and a grade – I was the “enemy.” This led to a certain sense of despondency on their part, one that I tried to remedy but could not. The written portion of their final evaluations revealed this most without ambiguity, as did this email that I received on Thanksgiving day regarding a recently returned paper (I’ve edited this somewhat to make it even more anonymous):

First  my works cited WAS indented before you converted it to a PDF. This seems to happen every time. Secondly  I was not totally rushed to write my paper. I do have other classes than yours, you know and I had two 4 page papers due that week back to back. I make 100s on all my other papers so I think you have a problem with me or you’re just to picky. I do what you ask me to do and I change it then when you grade it  so you must forget what you told me and you count off anyway. In all my other English classes I’ve made As and Bs and I’ve had many works published in books and Ive never had a problem until I took your class. 

It’s aggressive, angry, and on many levels, inappropriate. Yet what the student thought is that I was accusing her of things, rather than trying to help her. This was also the first “reflective” or “complaining” email I had received from the student, which suggests she internalized her frustration and let it all out at once. She’s mad at both small things (the fact that I told her to indent the second line of her works cited) and big things (I’m too picky). In my end-comments, I suggested that she might have been rushed in writing the paper – as I had some evidence that she wrote it at the last minute. This assumption clearly felt like an accusation, and I’ll never do it again. Her frustration probably built with each returned paper, before it exploded. And I should note that this is someone who, while doing poorly on this particular assignment, got a B in the course. Ultimately, I never got to address this with the student, because I told her to meet me in my office and she never did.

While you might see this as evidence of a student’s entitlement (I’ve made As and Bs), or pathology (that she never expressed her irritation before to avoid this blow-up), it would be irresponsible not to recognize part of this falls squarely on me as an instructor, and it’s prompted me to create the following reflective assignment: “Productive complaining”

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My opening salvo is the key to this exercise as a pedagogical endeavor: by complaining, students are practicing and employing a personal form of rhetoric, which is the primary goal of my class. But as is hopefully clear, the other imperative of this assignment is to have an ongoing conversation with students about how they feel being graded and critiqued, and about how I can best help them with my marginal- and end- comments. Hopefully, I’ve also formalized the process of complaining, establishing it as genre, encouraging it as an ethical practice, and using the mechanisms of the class to give it a channel through which it can occur.

Finally, it furthers the project that I always see myself engaged in: of de-centering authority and giving the student ownership over his or her education.

When I explained this to the class, I noticed that they were alternately delighted and confused. Some of the delight may have been the carrot-and-stick approach through which I’m encouraging them to complain initially by giving them a grade boost. And the confusion is most obviously related to the fact that I am a weird teacher who has already asked them to write three drafts of a a rhetorical analysis of a commercial and now is ordering them to complain about their grades. And I imagine there was some suspicion as well. A student from another one of my classes was nearby, waiting for her next class to begin, and immediately walked in saying, “Did I hear you right? Were you insisting that your students complain?!”

Yes. Yes, I was.

The complaints are not due until later today, but the first early-bird response I received suggests unqualified success:

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I love this complaint. It tells me so much about how and why the student is concerned. Here’s what happened: the student got an “A” on the paper, which is the highest grade I gave. However, when he looked at his grade on Canvas, he was frustrated to receive a “95.” I gave him a “95” because that corresponds to an “A” in the gradebook, and Canvas has no way of merely entering and calculating letter grades. Therefore, I ultimately don’t stick hard and fast to numerical averages, mainly using Canvas as a place to store and record grades. He’s also confused as to why I gave him a “5/5” on earlier drafts; in fact, I was just acknowledging that he completed them and giving him credit for doing so. My comments, rather than the grade, reflected the quality. I can explain this to him, and he might not be totally satisfied with the answer, but at least there is an answer. This is clearly a student who is concerned about his grade, perhaps overly concerned, to the point where he’s managing every point and trying to figure out what he needs to do to receive that “A.” That’s something I can help him with by explaining the way grades work in my class; it also initiates a conversation about grading practices in general.

But as an instructor, there’s also this for me: I clearly gave this student nothing but “good job” type criticisms. In looking over the paper, there were places where I probably could have been specific and suggestive. This is problem for me, I think, with “A” papers: I tend to give them a breeze-by on the comments because they’re mostly doing everything right. Of course, their papers aren’t perfect, and therefore I can offer more constructive criticisms as a way of thinking about future assignments. I’m glad to have learned this.

So far, I like this a lot. I’ll be reporting back on my progress eventually.

The Pancake Monster

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Selections from the transcript of my meeting with Sesame Street from a tape recorder

ME: So when do I get to meet Big Bird?

ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: (Garbled, unrecognizable talking)

ME: Okay, what about Oscar the Grouch?

ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: (Garbled, unrecognizable talking)

ME: Do I get one of those tote bags?

ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: (Garbled, unrecognizable talking)

ME: Yes, I am carrying a tape recorder.

(LATER)

PBS Executive: So what would the Pancake monster do?

ME: He could teach kids to count, using pancakes.

PBS Executive: But that’s what the Count does.

ME: Right, but the count uses numbers. The pancake monster uses pancakes.

PBS Executive: It sounds very similar to the Cookie Monster.

ME: Who?

PBS Executive: The cookie monster is a very famous character.

ME: I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of him.

PBS Executive: Are you recording this conversation?

(LATER)

ME: …so the pancake monster attacks people who are eating pancakes. And says, “paaaannn-caaaakes.” That’s all the pancake monster ever says. And then eats their pancakes.

PBS Executive: I have to admit,  he sounds . . .

ME: She

PBS Executive: Excuse me?

ME: She – the pancake monster is a she.

PBS Executive: Well, SHE sounds very similar to a zombie.

ME: Right, she is a zombie, but instead of human flesh, she eats pancakes.

(Pause)

ME: People love zombies. They’re very hip right now. Didn’t you see WORLD WAR Z?

PBS Executive: But don’t you think a zombie character would scare small children?

ME: Yes, that’s the point.

PBS Executive: Did you turn the tape recorder on again?

ME: What tape recorder?

PBS Executive: I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.

ME: How about this – did you ever see BLUE VELVET?

PBS Executive: I’m calling security. Please give me my pen back.

ME: So when do I get to meet Big Bird?

A Philip Seymour Hoffman Clip Retrospective

It’s interesting to think about the kinds of careers Philip Seymour Hoffman could have had. You wonder what would have happened if he had started his career on Saturday Night Live because he was so funny. He was the best thing about the banal and depressing rom-com Along Came Polly, playing a character who should have occupied his own movie – a former teen star who shouts “let it reign” whenever he shoots a basketball.

And in case you think this is a one-off, this extra from the DVD of Punch-Drunk Love has to be seen:

Hoffman had an element of Falstaff’s ridiculous and dramatic grandeur to him: it’s a shame he never got a chance to play him. His characters were shaggy, rotund, frequently drunken, and in love with himself. There’s an element of this, however submerged and sophisticated, in Capote and The Master. In the latter, he’s a guru who likes a little rubbing alcohol in his orange juice. But it’s nowhere better than Almost Famous, probably the signature role of a guy who made many, many great films. As Lester Bangs, he’s a manic junkie on life, a goofball scenester who’s smarter than you. Since I’ve read two books of Bangs’ music reviews, I can confirm that he’s internalized every aspect of what made his prose great.

As Matt Zoller Seitz writes in this touching retrospective, Hoffman was remarkable at playing  smug, privileged, and self-righteous. In one of his first roles, he plays “George Willis Jr.” in Scent of a Woman, the cocky rich snot who manipulates Chris O’Donnell’s scholarship kid. O’Donnell’s performance is so wooden and unformed that it requires young “Philip S. Hoffman” to make him sympathetic by contrast and to give us any chance of caring about such a cipher. He brought this sociopathic sense of disdain and bemusement to roles like Mission Impossible III that might have otherwise been a throwaway. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, he gives the most unique performance of his career as a guy who lives in a weird and dangerous space between desperation and absurd self-confidence.

His great movies will be revisited over and over in the coming weeks. We’ll hear much about his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, for reasons that don’t need to be explained here. But there’s three that no one ever talks about anymore. In David Mamet’s underrated if somewhat pompous 2000 satire State and Main, Hoffman plays a screenwriter who grows increasingly frustrated by the system. Amongst a bunch of lifetimers great at gaming the system, his frumpled confusion makes him the audience surrogate. While a bunch of other great actors (Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, David Paymer) are playing Hollywood types, Hoffman plays a living, breathing human who doesn’t realize he’s being chewed up and spit out. In this scene, he responds to phoniness not with more phoniness, but with exhaustion and bewilderment.

In  2003’s Owning Mahowny, he plays a gambling addict driven by no other need than his compulsion. In every scene, he’s thinking about the money he can win. Cinematic gambling has rarely looked so seedy, joyless, and workmanlike. The most compelling aspect of his performance is that we realize what he realizes, which is that his addiction is the only thing that makes him interesting. Though he had been great in supporting roles, this is one of the first times he’d ever owned a movie:

But Love Liza, I would argue, is the movie that captures everything you love about Hoffman. It’s one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t always work. Directed by actor Todd Louiso, written by Hoffman’s brother, it’s a film about a guy who responds to his wife’s suicide by sniffing copious amounts of gasoline. Ideally, it’s a movie about grief and reflection, but it’s impossible to get past that strange premise (which seems kind of gimmicky). Love Liza is a difficult movie to watch; I seem to remember it was marketed as a comedy, when it’s really another dark movie about addiction.

Nonetheless, Hoffman invests this inarticulate, emotionally detached loner with his trademark mix of sympathy and arrogance, and it’s a thing to behold. This is the most cliché statement you can make about an actor, but I have no idea how he goes there and how he makes this work. He refuses to let us laugh at his glue-tripping, and yet we also never feel totally sorry for his bad behavior.

I’ll close with Roger Ebert’s description of the performance:. It makes me kind of emotional reading through it.

“There is a kind of attentive concern that Hoffman brings to his characters, as if he has been giving them private lessons, and now it is time for their first public recital. Whether or not they are ready, it can be put off no longer, and so here they are, trembling and blinking, wondering why everyone else seems to know the music.”

(After I finished this, I remembered his sad, thoughtful role in 25th Hour. God this guy was something else).

What Do You Get If You Cross The Man of Steel With A Hot Vegetable Broth?

(If you haven’t seen the wonderful Superdickery, don’t read this. Go there instead.)

Just saw MAN OF STEEL. I should have listened to everyone who hated it. It’s a joyless, humorless, bleak, violent film. I didn’t smile once, never laughed. In place of Donner and Lester’s love for a certain kind of nostalgic screwball spirit (which at times veered towards overkill), it’s militaristic, bullet-fueled spectacle. It’s special effects are glum and mechanical; it’s minor characters forgettable, military types: where’s Jimmy Olsen? I even missed Ned Beatty as Otis, particular when watching Michael Shannon and Russell Crowe have a glower-off about a “codex.” Terence Stamp brought a bit of Edmund and Iago to General Zod – bemused by his own badness. Shannon, who can be awesome in the right part, might as well as be delivering his lines to a computer (which, when he’s talking to Jor-El, I guess, he is). The movie relies on space-age technology to justify its leaps of logic. Superman and General Zod shoot lasers from their eyes, which is probably the reason Snyder wanted to make this move in the first place. And even for a movie not called Demolition Man, there sure is a lot of demolition, man.

The original Superman movies got increasingly more ridiculous, until finally they fell under the helm of cheapskate shlock merchants Golan-Globus and featured Jon Cryer as “Lenny Luther.” Richard Donner took the material seriously, investing it with a sense of mythos that sometimes overdid itself. For instance, when Superman flies it’s inherently poetic; we don’t need Lois Lane to offer her own poetic monologue to tell us this. But John Williams’ (dearly departed) score was awe-inspiring even when the movie was not, and it did the ethics of superpowers thing well enough even amidst a lot of ground-laying and jokes for the kids. Here is a line I never thought I’d type: “Margot Kidder is much better than Amy Adams.” Which isn’t Adams’ fault – she’s ideally cast for a role that no one bothered to write for her. Superman Returns went broad, and it treated the original Donner  movie as though it set a cinematic tone that couldn’t be violated. And it gave Superman a kid. Still, it feels like got the tone right, whereas this one is filmed seems washed free of color. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I like my pancakes round and my Superman movies bright and colorful.  Yet since 2006, we’ve only further confirmed the set of commercial tactics from the Bond and Batman reboot playbook. I know that the new spin for reboots is, “You know what this story needs? Intense realism.” And I guess the box office success of this will validate that.

When Watchmen came out, I remember an ad calling Zak Snyder a visionary; that’s hilarious – his entire aesthetic is defined by absence of vision, literally. Here, the movie is often a confusing mess of CGI shots and live-action inserts.  He frequently uses smoke and dust to obscure the action. The best parts of Watchmen were simply reproducing panels, which says more about the set and costume designer than the director. A student of mine suggested that his disastrous Sucker Punch is a movie with a weird, demented personality that demands to be pondered. Nathan Rabin notes that, Sucker Punch “aims to lure us into an exciting world of adventure and excitement, and then force us to concede our complicity in the exploitation, objectification, and dehumanization of the women onscreen,” even if it ultimately failed to pull it off. So Snyder is a director of startling, stupid ambition, and we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him.

My final point: LONE RANGER was ten times as good as this.

(The answer to the joke: Souperman!)