Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Color"? or "colour"?

When I was in school over at the University of Michigan, we Engineering undergrads were stigmatized as napalm-making, war-enabling weapons mongers. This stunned us, because as all these demonstrators were waving these signs in our faces we were still trying to find our classrooms and drafting boards and slide-rules and get down to work. We weren't political animals. (Engineers aren't, as a rule. They have to be reminded to vote.)

Engineering students faced heavy class-loads of math, computer science, physics, etc, etc, etc, and had little time left to be assigned for literary endeavors, but the powers that be did require us to be at least marginally well-rounded, and therefore a course in Humanities called "Great Books" was made "mandatory". (This you should interpret in student-speak as "unneeded and unwanted".)

Three times a week, therefore, a group of twenty of us "Unjin" boys (no females in those days) would show up with our paperbacks in a dusty classroom with ancient desks and discuss the classics. Our instructor was an ex-newspaper editor with Harry Potter glasses, elbow-patched tweed jacket, black beard and weary attitude. I'll call him Professor Belcher.

Nobody was fooling anybody here, Prof Belcher told us, right off. He knew and we knew and we knew he knew and he knew we knew this stuff was only for "our own good" and we'd probably toss the books in the bonfire when we were through with them, but, hey, some things transcend everyday practicality.

So we discussed the classics. This meant, or was supposed to mean, that at some point we actually READ the books on the class reading list... buy or steal the title from the bookstore, take it home, and apply eyes to print.

Some of us did this, I suspect, and many did not.

We were assigned Papers to write based on this fairly non-existent research. We were asked to express Opinions. We were expected to Think about Deep and Meaningful Things.

Being a go-getter in my youth, and creatively naive, I wrote a paper about the significance of the Knight's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. (Chosen by me at random the night before it was due, of course.)

Oh, it was a fine paper. The best that an all-nighter could buy. I waxed eloquent. I discussed and declaimed and reached far-flung conclusions any critic in the world would envy. It was a masterpiece.

And it came back marked with all these little blue marks editors make, and an "F".

I was outraged! Here was a word I'd used to describe the Knight... "amoral", blue-penciled with a cryptic "wd". "Wd?" What the hell was THAT supposed to mean? I seethed and boiled and went down the paper noting all the other little cryptic markings this Prof Belcher had appended to my tome and made a raging redlist of offenses to my honor, then wrote a rebuttal to each and every one of his remarks, my pen spewing unrepentant venom.

And I took this new version of my painfully typed paper, now festooned with a dozen new handwritten counter-arguments, and stalked off toward Prof Belcher's office. He had written one phrase in actual English at the top of the paper: "This work is troubling and confusing. Please see me." Well, by God, I was taking him up on THAT!

"You have been a very good writer up until now," he began, as we sat down, he behind his desk, me in a wooden chair nearby.

"So why did you flunk me?" I asked, an edge of controlled sarcasm in my tone.

"Because you were not clear... this paper is a jumble," he responded.

"And what is it with my use of 'amoral'?" I continued. "Was that unclear, too?"

"Oh, that? I meant that you chose the wrong word for what you were trying to say."

I narrowed my eyes and stared at him. "But if the paper was a jumble, how did you know what I was trying to say well enough to reject a perfectly good word I used saying it?"

For a moment I had him. I had him!

"Well," he mumbled finally, "I suppose you can rewrite the paper and resubmit..."

"Thank you, Professor," I responded. "I think I will."

And I did, and the word "amoral" stayed, and I got a B+ the second time, mainly by rearranging a few sentences and dropping one loose end. We had both saved face. It was a victory.

Since those long-ago years I have been in debate with people about language and words at times, especially about English usage such as "colour" instead of "color" and "judgement" instead of "judgment." I happen to prefer the English versions, but feel entitled to use whichever version strikes my fancy because Merriam-Webster says I can. I use whichever word is most appealing on the page. Sometimes I bend the rules. Sometimes I invent terms. Sometimes I use a word in an inappropriate context because it seems to make sense.

Shoot me, go ahead. 'Cause I'm a rebel!


---Michael--- said...

Before you ask, this story is entirely based on fact, and as Sgt Friday used to say on Dragnet, only the names were changed to protect the innocent.

Raven said...

I admire your willingness to defend yourself. I was a wimp for most of my life. One of my bitterest "F's" was for a paper on Othello, a play I didn't like very much despite the pretty language. Of course it was the professors favorite an I knew that. But I had to write criticism. Such is life.

I think it's sad that often those who are teachers - a position of remarkable power - fail to have imagination when they read their students' efforts. Sounds like you had a good teacher in this man who was willing to own his error.

---Michael--- said...

Prof Belcher sometimes comes across to people as an ogre when I tell them this story. I'm glad that this time, Raven, you saw through that stereotype and seized on the actual quality of that man as I knew him.

Andrée said...

this is a riot (probably because of your tone). When I have a student like you, I enjoy teaching more. We get stuck in ruts like everybody else. And most of the time we wonder who cares. But when somebody does care, the debate is fun. Unless the debate is strictly about grades. Your debate was about grades but you were willing to grow and change. That's all we need.