The Trials and Tribulations of Teaching

A friend who teaches American and sometimes Asian history courses sent me the following enquiry, which she received via email from one of her American history students. I am happy to say that I have never received a student message this inane or inarticulate, though the fundamental confusion about the geography of the world and the chronology of our recent past is somewhat familiar.

Now, I have a question pertaining to the history of World War 2. I was wondering why we dropped the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. because we didnt do it until 1945 and Pearl Harbor was in 1941. Also, we had already gotten back at them on April 18, 1942 in Tokyo right? First it was Hiroshima on August 6th and then three days later we dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, correect? My other question is if Japan is a seperate country from North Korea and I know its seperate from China, but do they speak Chinese. Last night I was watching Pearl Harbor and in it they said to remember these words, I can’t say them, but they were in Chinese. I thought it was the Japanese we were mad at in Tokyo. I am a little confused about this please help.Thanks, XXXXXXXXXX

Of course the general ignorance of this message is frustrating, but what really bothers me is the lack of formality. I have talked with colleagues about this, and many disagree. Email is the students’ natural medium, they say, and they are not used to writing in the style of a letter as I would prefer: “Dear Professor So-and-So.” Still, it rankles me when I get emails from students that begin, “Hey, I was wondering . . .” Related to the lack of formality is the absence of care regarding spelling and grammatical errors. We all send emails (or publish blog entries) without spell-checking, but the above message is just egregious.



  1. We just had another of the perennial “how should they address us” discussions over on Cliopatria

    What bothers me about this, actually, is neither the address — which usually gets discouraged by the formality of my replies; I rarely get that kind of informality twice — nor the spelling — that gets better as they get more fluent with writing and reading, and at least it’s all understandable — but the fact that they are asking questions the answers to which are trivially available to them with simple searches. I don’t mind answering a quick and dirty “what’s the difference between Korea and Japan” question in class, if it keeps everyone up to speed. But in less time than it took this student to e-mail, they could have gone to Wikipedia….

    I had a beloved professor in college who said that she didn’t mind answering questions about hard vocabulary words or other confusing things in the text, but only if you actually tried to answer the question yourself — with at least a good dictionary — first.

    I’d be inclined to email back a link, rather than a long answer.

  2. I recall reading an essay complaining how the youth of today were inappropriately familiar with their elders, inadequately trained in respectful language and unable to express themselves clearly in speaking or writing. The essay was written in the Heian era.

  3. It’s a failure of imagination. They can’t grasp that there are simple research tools at their fingertips – which may pass. But they can’t visualise the idea that their victim has an independent identity, which does not exist to fulfil their needs.

    They have no respect for other people’s time. That, to me, is the sad bit.

  4. Regarding the Heian essay, check out the psychological literature in this regard. For instance, the recent popular book “Generation Me,” by Jean Twenge, which records real, objective differences in today’s youth from 25-35 years ago.

    I wonder if it isn’t the case that confusion at the level of this student precludes understanding that the desired answers can be found easily or the extent to which they are wasting time.

  5. It is precisely this type of prescriptive self-knowing in formality that affords a feeling of intrusion. ‘Intellects’ who cannot laugh at themselves lack academic acumen in situ–but then again, this site and all of its phallocentric, and/or otherwise conceited constituents, expel nothing but anality, academic superficiality, and a whole lot of plutocratic self-appreciation. The mere observation of the author’s own solecisms in midst of an ‘egregious’ denigration is double-damning that also makes me ‘rankled’ (sic) and eager to dig my nails into my palms.

  6. D.F.W.: You assume that because I expressed annoyance with the student who wrote an informal email to my friend therefore I must force formality upon my own students. This is sloppy thinking. In fact my classes are filled with humor and are not bound by rules and regulations. Your other comments are so pompous and self-congratulatory that they do not deserve a response.

  7. Your imposition of formality is irrelevant to my post, as the independent clause: “It is precisely this type of prescriptive self-knowing in formality that affords a feeling of intrusion”, is a plangent critique of precisely, your self-congratulatory and pompous ‘annoyance’, and not ‘sloppily’ suggestive of fallacious reasoning that I would presume to be cognizant of your in-class curriculum.

  8. Clearly, DFW embodies both a psychological and socialogical pedagogical paradigm which transcends prescriptive hierarchical linguistics to achieve self-abnegative egalitarianism without sacrificing ego, polysyllabism, power or pseudonymity.

  9. Guide to sounding like a complete douchebag who may or may not teach writing at Pomona College:

    1. Use the word “precisely” several times in every paragraph to sound deliberate.
    2. Refer to your own grammatical structures to impress your readers with your technical knowledge of writing.
    3. Use punctuation in the British, rather than the American, style.
    4. Refer to your own writing with the adjective “plangent.”
    5. Excessively use scare quotes to imply layered meanings and lofty tone.

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