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”


—————————————————————————————— (note, after posting this, I see the typos; they’ve been fixed)

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:


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


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.


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?


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.


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!)

Going to Chicago for MLA! – A hypothetical budget

Good news! I am a hypothetical job candidate and I just got word of my first hypothetical MLA interview today on December 24th.  They’ve asked me to come on January 11th.

I live in Washington DC, attend one of the consortium schools, and make around $10-14,000 a year as a graduate assistant after taxes. I also have significant student loans, and have spent some money to travel to see my family.

I do not have a car, and pay around $750 in rent in the two bedroom apartment I share with my hypothetical roommate. Since this is the first notice I’ve received for an MLA interview, I’ll go ahead and make reservations and keep my fingers crossed that I’ll get a few more. I don’t have any hypothetical friends in Chicago, at least well enough to call and ask for a free hypothetical place to stay. The good news is that I live in a major city with two major airports, and I’m flying into another major city that isn’t unreasonably far away. Therefore, I’m in a good position overall, and my hypothetical budget is going to be on the cheaper end.

First I need to join MLA and pay for the conference.



Not bad; I’m thankful I can pay the graduate rate. Next I need to get a flight.


Much as I’d like to take a non-stop flight, I don’t want to be rolling into Chicago around 10 pm. Also, getting to Dulles (IAD) is expensive and difficult because it’s not metro-accessible. So, I’m going to Reagan at 1:30. Need to pick a return flight and here’s the damage:


Now I need a hotel room. If I want to stay at one of the conference hotels, here’s what I’m looking at:



And here’s what happens when I do Expedia for hotels on the Magnificent Mile:


I can keep looking around, but I’m just going to assume that I can get a room for around 91 dollars a night after taxes. I’d love to stay at the hotel where the conference meets, but every cent matters, and likely one of these cheaper hotels will allow me free internet and perhaps a free continental breakfast. So while the conference rate will be cheaper than the prices listed above for the Sheraton and the Marriott, I’m going to choose to stay in one of the two star hotels that are (hopefully) conveniently located and are (certainly) cheaper.

To get to my hotel from the airport, I’ll need to take a shuttle, which I assume will be cheaper than a cab.


I’ll give myself a budget of fifty dollars total for meals, and I’ll need about six dollars to travel to and from the airport on the Metro. Here’s how much I will (optimistically) be spending for the trip:



I’ve presented this without qualification or commentary, but I do hope this puts things into something of a financial perspective for both potential job-seekers and those who are looking to hire them. Also, we should be aware that some students are given a stipend for travel expenses related to job interviews, but often that money is limited.

I present this as something of an ideal situation for the moment: that is, I’ve found out about two weeks ahead of time, and I’m flying from a major city to another major city close-by.  And yet, I realize this budget may be hopelessly naive – but keep in mind the graduate students who are just finding out about MLA interviews today. Or next week.

I welcome feedback from all participants in this process – those who are attending MLA as candidates and potential employers, and for alternate possibilities.

This Song is Actually About Video Games

Full disclosure: for the last few months, I’ve been obsessed with Lana Del Rey’s song “Video Games.” I probably haven’t disclosed this because it’s a weird thing for a thirty-six year old man to listen to while jogging. And while “Video Games” fits my jogging playlist standards for inclusion (matches my breathing rhythms, rises to a crescendo after moments of repetition), I think my weird preoccupation with the song is based on a misinterpretation.

Because I’ve been meaning to write about the way song is the most damning critique of pre-and-post millennial hipster masculinity that I’ve heard at least since people started using the word “hipster” to describe people who know the names of all the members of Animal Collective. I based this reading primarily on the first verse:

I’m in his favorite sun dress
Watchin’ me get undressed
Take that body downtown
I say youre the bestest
Lean in for a big kiss
Put his favorite perfume on
Go play your video game

Now, perhaps it’s because I’d never actually looked at the lyrics before, and because I was usually jogging across a busy street when listening to it, but I assumed the lyrics were describing something different than those lyrics suggest: Lana is dressed for romance, while her dude just wants to play video games – a conflict that the rest of the song (I thought) plays out. Combined with Lana’s persona – a torch singer who would have been iconoclastic in the 1970s (her entire image construction seems impossible without the pre-existence of Joan from Mad Men), I assumed the song was laying into all the dudes drinking PBR and sitting on a bean bag chair and playing A Boy and his Blob as Lana Del Rey is wearing their favorite sundress. Lana is so hopelessly in love that she’ll reinvent herself again (I heard that you like the bad girls, honey / Is that true?), while some Dmitri Martin look-alike wanders around virtually to find out if there’s a way to get out of the dungeon without using the wizard key. Women continue to be awesome, while men have been increasingly ineffectual and detached. I thought that sentiment, savage yet exact, made the song damningly relevant.

But that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here. It seems like Lana actually wants to play video games with her amour.  That’s her idea of a romantic evening, and it’s why she puts on a sundress. Or it’s a euphemism for sex, which is stupid. The consistent refrain doesn’t make sense in any other context, unless it’s ironic, and there’s nothing about the way Lana sings the song to suggest that. For instance:

He holds me in his big arms
Drunk and I am seein’ stars
This is all I think of
Watchin’ all our friends fall
In and out of Old Paul’s[?]
This is my idea of fun
Playin’ video games

In other words, Lana and her hunk snuggle up together and play ICE CLIMBER. That’s the romantic bliss the song is describing.

This blogger seems to affirm my reading, even though it has a different, empowering interpretation. She thinks it’s about a woman participating in a gendered setting, while I now assume it’s just a way of making the torch song culturally relevant. She says, “Despite all her lyrics about sundresses, perfume, and big kisses, ‘Video Games’ is mostly about playing video games” when I thought it was about sundresses, perfume, and big kisses and  heavily flannelled hippie-johnnies who would rather play video games.

When Lana Del Rey was widely mocked for her performance on Saturday Night Live, I assumed it was because this degree of anti-charisma combined with celebrity ambition was never going to work in this cultural moment. She wasn’t the kind of icon anyone was asking for, and that therefore she (and whoever else talked Lorne Michaels into putting her on) had made a huge miscalculation. But now I’m just baffled. Lana continues to be reasonably popular while remaining mostly out of the Top 10 List on Youtube. There’s room for her, in other words, but not at the top. But perhaps confusion – about what she’s trying to be and what her songs mean – is the most appropriate way to approach her. And I guess that’s why she remains on my jogging playlist.

(The video, by the way, explains nothing. Except that, like Lana Del Rey, it exists uncomfortably in the present and the past).

THE 80’s Hair Metal Horror Classic That Wasn’t

Trick or Treat is a movie made in 1986 about a Satanic hair rocker who comes to life through an album played backwards and then uses his guitar to kill high school students. When I was ten, this movie was on pay-per-view, and no-way, no-how were my parents going to let me rent it. But the pay-per-view channel showed previews all day long, and I watched this one over and over again:

I know. Why haven’t you heard of this movie? It’s Carrie meets Ratt’s Invasion of Privacy. Revenge of the Nerds with Vince Neil instead of Ogre. Ultra-timely, it plays on those Tipper Gore-led witch hunts against the likes of Rob Halford and Dee Snider. At one point, Satan incarnate complains under oath that you can’t legislate morality. It’s every parent’s nightmare about the effects of rock music on disaffected teenagers. Why wasn’t Trick or Treat exhibit F that rock n’roll was the Devil’s music for people who actually though KISS stood for “Knights In Service of Satan.” Why, you’re asking, aren’t people watching this at midnight tonight and throwing crap at the screen when demon-rocker Sammi Curr kills the gay guy from Melrose Place? Trick or Treat should be the ultimate time capsule for everything that was stupid and horrible and wonderful about hair metal, packed into the kind of exploitation mid-80s horror movie that we’ve canonized through the hard work of obsessive cults.

But it’s not.

And the reason, sadly is that Sammi Curr – who is supposed to be everything cool and dark about the music – is played by some dude named Tony Fields. According to its Wikipedia page, Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. was originally set to play Sammi, and that would have made the movie awesome

Blackie would have damn-near perfect; he was just the charismatic anti-icon the movie needed. Instead, Tony Fields was “one of the stars of the chorus line,” and he barely registers. Meanwhile Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne have cameos, and they appear hilariously on the DVD cover even though they don’t even last a combined five minutes in the movie. Ozzy plays a televangelist.

The screenwriters had the right idea. A bullied weiner named Eddie sits in his room and writes embarrassingly personal letters to this scuzzy guitar god. Then Sammi, “Rock’s chosen warrior,” dies in a hotel fire and Eddie gets a hold of the “last record,” which does some weird stuff to his stereo when he plays it. This posthumous effort turns out to be even more affecting than Sammi’s last hits: “F*ck with Fire, Burning Metal, and Torture’s Too Kind.” Of course, playing it backwards only exacerbates things. Playing Eddie, Marc Price looks like a less-intelligent  version of Jesse Eisenberg (which is probably not a phrase  he wants in his obituary).

Sadly, Price’s claim to fame is still as Skippy from Family Ties, the kind of doofus so wussy even other nerds beat him up and he has to be rescued by Tina Yothers. Trick or Treat, recognizing that they have the world-class weiner on their hands, has him get rescued by a girl here too. So Eddie goes home to listen to Sammi Curr’s cacophonous screeching, and despite all his rage, he’s still just a rat in a cage. Until the devil’s music makes him more confident and willing to take on the metrosexual bullies who torment him for some reason (a similar transformation happened to me in high school when I listened to Nelson’s After the Rain).

All hell breaks loose. Kind of. While the film creepily has Sammi’s ghost haunt a Walkman (!) to have his way with the bully’s girlfriend, the rest of the movie is just not absurd enough to register. Which is too bad, because it’s a killer setup, and it should have been at least as memorable as Child’s Play. Trick or Treat is only half as fun as it should be.

Does music really speak to us? In its own trashy way, Trick or Treat argues that it does. Eddie isn’t Charles Manson thinking “Piggies” is about a race war; these songs are truly haunted, invested with the fiendish spirit that Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center assured us were present in Sheena Easton lyrics. The movie is at its best when it suggests those fevered anxieties might be true.

Here’s a loving mock-obituary to Sammi.  And here, apparently, is the whole movie on Youtube.