Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Literature and Proofreading

My very first semester at UVA, I took a class on Shakespeare.  I can picture the immediate reaction of most people as they read that sentence.  Usually something along the lines of “Why would you subject yourself to that?”  Well, I happen to like Shakespeare, although I get why most people don’t.  It’s kind of like reading in another language and takes a certain kind of brain shift to do easily.

However, I’m not writing this to defend Shakespeare—he can do that well enough on his own.  The reason I bring this class up is because I have no notes from it, which seems like it could mean I didn’t learn anything.  On the contrary, this was a great class where I learned a lot.  It just didn’t involve lectures, but rather consisted of some really great class discussions, the kind that I was too involved in to write down.

I also really loved the professor, Hoyt Duggan, who unfortunately retired at the end of that semester before I could recommend him to other people.  He had an amusing habit of reciting things in proper Middle English pronunciation in class and confusing the heck out of all his students.

He also gave us the few notes I do have left from this class, which offer great, but slightly sarcastic, advice on grammar and on what I’m going to cover today—writing a literary essay.  I have abbreviated these slightly, but Prof. Duggan’s instructions on how to write a literary essay are such:

“Do not retell the story.  I’ve read it.  (You may provide immediate context for your analysis, however.)

Underline or italicize the titles of book-length works (novels, plays, very long poems, etc.); place titles of shorter works (short poems, essays, etc.) between quotation marks.

Discuss literature as if it were happening now, in the present tense, not in the past tense—and be consistent.

Unless you have some compelling reason to do otherwise (and you state it in your paper), quote from the text used in class—and, by the way, don’t even attempt to write a literary essay without using plenty of quotations from the work you are discussing.  That means that you probably can not write an essay from memory; you must go back to the text and do some re-reading to write an effective essay. 

ALWAYS identify poetry by (canto or book and) line number; if you wish to include the page number as well, that is fine with me (it helps me find the passage more quickly).

Provide a separate Works Cited page—always. Be sure to cite the author and work, and not simply the title or editor of an anthology.  Be sure to distinguish between author (e.g., Chaucer), editor (e.g., Grene & Lattimore), and translator (e.g., Wyckoff), where appropriate.”

However, my favorite part of his advice is this:


No unproofread paper is worth more than an F.  Why?

Because the form in which you submit your paper says something about how much you respect your teacher as well as how much you respect yourself.  If you turned in a sloppily presented piece of work, you are saying (or the teacher is hearing), “I don’t care about it/you/myself.  It doesn’t matter that much to me.”  It should come as no surprise that you cannot be rewarded for that level of work or that attitude.  It takes no more than a few minutes to make sure that the quality of the presentation of your work matches the quality of the work that went into it.

If you would like a more practical, less theoretical, reason, consider this: if you do not take care in presenting your prose (resume, letters reports, etc.), you will not
-  Get the job you apply for,
-  Get treated as well by your boss as you think you deserve,
-  Get the response you want from your professional colleagues, or
-  Get the promotion you expect.

You may not even keep your job.”

Harsh, but there certainly are a lot of stories I know of people not getting a job or something because of a stupid mistake.  It was also nice to have a professor who was so honest and upfront about what he expected of us!

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