Sunday, December 9, 2018

Up to My Ears

by Jean Roberta

Please excuse my silence here for the past two days.

I’ve been hard at work marking late essays before my first exam on Monday morning (December 10). I haven’t had time to read anything else.

Here is a randomly-chosen passage by one of my international students (i.e. English is not their first language) on a short story by Margaret Atwood, “My Last Duchess.” (The story refers to “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, a monologue put in the mouth of the Duke of Ferrara, rumoured to have had his teenage bride murdered in the 1500s.)

The point of view in “My Last Duchess” is very important. The reader sees the point of view through the author’s eyes. The reader gets to see inside her head and understand how she feels. The reader, however, does not get to see inside Bill’s head so the reader does not understand why he is trying to defend the Duchess. The author, however, has a reason why she doesn’t defend the Duchess and why the Duke should be defended. The reader also sees why the author sees her teacher as important to her and how her teacher is her role model.

Students were supposed to explain how the viewpoint from which a particular story is told (first-person, third-person limited, third-person omniscient, third-person objective, etc.) affects all the other elements: plot, tone, characterization. I’ve used this as an essay topic for a few semesters because it tends to prevent plagiarism. For some reason, the standard on-line student-help sites (Schmoop, Sparknotes, enotes, Grade Saver) don’t feature sections on viewpoint which could easily be copied-and-pasted into an essay. So first-year university students who rush to their favourite site as soon as they get the topic for their next essay are left to flounder on their own.

There is a lot of plot summary in the essays I’ve read so far.

In addition to the essay on a particular short story, students had to write about a novel.

Every semester, I must assign a book-length work (novel, collection of short stories, volume of poetry, play in several acts) that students must read on their own without much guidance, and then write about in an essay. This assignment was set in place by the English Department as a whole, even though I think it’s too much for first-year students in addition to everything they are guided through in class.

Last year, I bought twelve copies of the very recent novel Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis, put them on reserve in the university library (they could only be taken out overnight), and assigned an essay on it. I found the animal-fable format of the novel intriguing, and it is set in a particular part of Canada: the city of Toronto, with a map. The following semester, I found passages from on-line book reviews leaking into my students’ essays.

This semester, I decided to change the book. In line with the university policy of “indigenization,” I bought ten copies of a dystopian YA novel, The Marrow-Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, and placed them in the library. Serendipitously, I learned later that the Metis author will be coming here to Regina, Saskatchewan, to give the keynote address in a conference on dystopian fiction in February 2019.

The novel is movingly and poetically written, and it combines a coming-of-age story with the endless journey of a makeshift “family” of survivors, including a wise old “nokomis” (here she would be called a “kokum”), a grandmother with useful knowledge to pass down, and a kind of family leader who turns out to be a man who was married to another man, the love of his life, whom he lost and quietly mourns.

There is much to like about this novel. The central plot premise, however, works much better as a metaphor than as a biological possibility. Indigenous people are being ruthlessly hunted by a Canadian government agency for their precious bone-marrow, which contains their dreams, and all other people are losing their sanity because they can no longer dream. The extraction of the marrow kills the subjects, and it is saved as a kind of fluid in test tubes that are then transported away from the “schools” where the captive human subjects are destroyed.

In a one-class discussion, several students asked how this marrow transfusion is supposed to work, exactly. All I could say is that the novel is not intended to be sci-fi, and the author clearly had other priorities when writing it than to work out the biological details.

The exploitation of indigenous people as a natural resource seems all too believable, and the “mainstream” (government) assumption that the bodies of those defined as sub-human should be available for use by the privileged has resonance in a time when sexual abuse is regularly in the news.

It bothers me, though, that a process that is clearly conceived of as symbolic is central in an otherwise realistic novel about survival in a damaged physical environment, relationships, group dynamics, and the preservation of endangered cultures, including languages. True enough, the makeshift family creates a tradition of storytime because stories (both individual and collective) are an important means of maintaining life and hope, but even the stories-within-the-story are meant to be truer, in some sense, than official denials and rationalizations.

I chose this novel because -- at the time I chose it -- there wasn’t much about it on-line for students to find, but The Marrow-Thieves has won several awards and is getting a lot of buzz. I can see that I’ll have to change the book again in the near future.

Meanwhile, I have to read essay after essay which summarizes the plot instead of defending an argument about the concepts in it.

Then I’ll have to grade a pile of exams a.s.a.p. I’m sure there will be times when I’ll feel as if my marrow is being drained.


  1. Ouch! I do not envy you, Jean. Grading 60 computer programming assignments seems far less exhausting (though I do need to watch out for cheating, also).

    I also taught a graduate student course this term. As an experiment I gave the seven students in the class an essay-based, open book take home exam. Given that these students definitely have issues with English, I worried this would be a failed experiment, but in fact most of the students did quite well. I guess they were more motivated than I expected. (I also let them select questions out of a range of options.)

  2. I hope your marrow has been replenished by now!


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