Friday, June 23, 2006

Student essays can be so depressing...

Image of a Gypsy Scholar Grading Student Essays
(Image Borrowed from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I praised a student. Today, I dispraise one.

Clever students can sometimes expend more spirit in a waste of shameless cheating than would have been needed for writing a good essay. One smart student turned in an essay on Shakespeare that sounded like it might say something interesting. Here's the introduction:

Melancholy embodies a complex mixture of sentiments, typically defined as "a mental condition characterized by extreme depression, bodily complaints, and often hallucinations and delusions; an abnormal state attributed to an excess of black bile and characterized by irascibility or depression of spirits."[1] Indeed, melancholia is a relatively novel idea that surfaced during the Renaissance.[2] As European society gradually emphasized a philosophy centered on humanity over divinity, literature started to elaborately reflect human emotions, including the theme of melancholy. For instance, Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, and Burton scrutinized the subject of melancholy in some of their most appreciated works. When these "writers gave melancholy the complex meanings and associations it has in their work, they were drawing on a tradition that had been developing throughout classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, and whose diverse origins made it an especially fruitful subject for literature."[3] Shakespeare, one of the best known and the most highly praised English writer, has left many works that approach the theme of melancholy. Shakespeare's four tragedies are subject to the theme of melancholy because these works communicate the theme of solitude, madness, the sense of tragedy, jealousy, and the great paradoxes of life.

(The small, bracketed numbers represent the students footnotes, which I reproduce here: [1] Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1998); [2] Winfreid Schleiner, Melanchholy, Genius, and Utopia in the Renaissance (Wiesbaden: In Kommission bei Otto Harrassowitz, 1991), 9; and [3] Bridget Gellert Lyons, Voices of Melancholy (Barnes and Noble, New York, 1971), 1.)
This introduction reveals some commendable strengths but also betrays some troubling weaknesses. The student has sought out sources and found reputable ones but already shows a tendency to overquote. Smart students who overquote probably haven't set aside enough time for working on their essay, and from this, a number of problems follow. For instance, they often won't notice that they've contradicted themselves. In the introduction above, the student has cited one source to claim that the novel idea of melancholia first emerged during the Renaissance but quoted another the locates its origin in classical antiquity. Such students will also cut corners to make the essay work a bit better, and one way they do this is by manufacturing quotes.

I found one such fabrication in the fourth body paragraph. In a series of statements alluding to William Hazlitt's analysis of Shakespeare's characters, the student also directly quotes Hazlitt to say this:
Lady Macbeth is the mirror of her husbands' delusion and thus also displays melancholic feature by becoming mad and finally falls to her death.
Nice quote, one might think ... except that something doesn't quite fit. Lady Macbeth is no polyandrist, so "husbands'" can't be right. The student must have mistyped "husband's" instead. Similarly, "melancholic feature" should be "melancholic features." There's also a stumbling aspect to the quote as it missteps from "becoming" to "falls." Wouldn't Hazlitt have written something more like "by becoming mad and finally falling to her death"? For that matter, wouldn't Hazlitt have preferred to avoid the alliteration in "finally falling" and to have expressed himself more like this: "by growing mad and ultimately falling to her death"?

My suspicions aroused, I checked the source cited: "William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays: Macbeth, Shakespeare Online, 2000." The website address read:
I clicked and landed on a site that informed me that the link had expired but provided an updated link, which led me to the larger Shakespeare Online website. There, I clicked analysis and landed on a webpage devoted to the analysis of 9 plays by Shakespeare. On that page, I clicked Macbeth and reached Hazlitt's commentary. But I found no remark by Hazlitt about Lady Macbeth being the mirror of her husband's delusion, not even a hint that Hazlitt might have reflected upon such an image.

I therefore did what I should have done from the beginning. I went to Advanced Google and searched for this exact phrase: "Lady Macbeth is the mirror." That search led to a website called Planet Papers, where one can purchase essays, and I found on that page an essay titled "Delusional Characters in Shakespeare." Interestingly, the student didn't use that paper but merely quoted from it ... or, rather, partly quoted: "Lady Macbeth's is the mirror of her husbands' delusion." Misquoted, in fact, for the possessive ending on "Macbeth" was lopped off. (And there's that polyandric "husbands'" again! I guess the student didn't mistype that mistake, after all.) The rest of the student's quote was an utter fabrication, which explains some of the problems that we noted above.

Why go to such trouble to fabricate a Hazlitt quote? I suppose that the student must have liked the remark about Lady Macbeth's delusion being the mirror of her husband's delusion but felt a need to link it to the themes of melancholia and madness and to attach it to a reputable source.

Note, for the record, that nothing of the quote is traceable to Hazlitt.

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At 3:53 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Busted by an apostrophe!

A great many cheaters doom themselves through their inability to comprehend that their instructor may have a sharper eye for diction, tone, and even typography...

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Exactly. The crux of the biscuit truly is the apostrophe. So, frankly, I zap 'em.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:11 PM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

Makes me glad that I only give my students simple, paragraph questions on their finals...

At 8:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But then you can't experience the joy of the hunt...

Jeffery Hodges

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