When my sons were beginning elementary school, they liked to while away a rainy Saturday afternoon playing school. They wanted me to play the teacher, but apparently I didn’t do it right. “You have to be meaner,” they’d say. “You have to yell a lot.”
I always wondered if their teachers really were shrieking meanies who toned it down when a parent appeared, or if they’d gotten this notion of the harridan-as-schoolteacher elsewhere. I’ve had a similar response to the recent case of the “graded breakup,” in which Nick Lutz, a student at the University of Central Florida, thought fit to mark up his ex-girlfriend’s apology note with a red pen and then tweet the results. The case has achieved notoriety both because the tweet has received hundreds of thousands of hits and because the university initially suspended Mr. Lutz. While he apparently found his “joke” “hilarious,” the university found that the tweet’s “offensive” and “harmful” implications violated the student code of conduct.
The student appealed, the suspension was lifted, and the case has been dismissed. But what interests me here, more than whether this is an example of cyberbullying or institutional overreach, is the actual correction and grading of the apology note. Most media outlets have characterized Lutz’s red marks as “fixing the grammar, spelling, and syntax errors” of the note, which he awarded a D−. But they do little of that — in fact, Lutz commits a few errors of his own in his marginalia. Rather, the knee-jerk criticisms of the young woman’s “essay” and the ad hominem responses make me wonder whether Lutz is really seeing comments like these on his papers, or if his notions of how a professor “grades” come from some other cliché.
A few examples. His ex’s opening apology is marked Too long of an introduction, lots of repitition [sic]. Actually, the sentences use a certain amount of repetition, particularly beginning with I know and interjecting maybe, to some rhetorical effect. But the no-no of being repetitive, along with the worn advice to omit needless words, may be prompting countless instructors to chide students simply for allowing introductions to run on past three sentences and for employing anaphora.
Lutz also hits his ex hard on what appear to be issues of critical thinking. He asks her to explain her reasoning at one point; twice he knocks her for failing to provide details. But looking at the sentences he marks up, I find he’s using terms like reasoning without quite understanding how they apply. To wit, the ex’s confession, “I ended up failing on my part” is castigated for lacking reasoning, though a confession of failure is not an argument. “No matter if you believe me or not, I never cheated on you” is dinged for requiring details to support your hypothesis. Leaving aside the absence of a hypothesis, one would be hard put to find details that support a negative claim. So details and hypothesis likewise seem to be terms empty of meaning to this student. When they run dry — as, perhaps, they do for Lutz’s instructors — he resorts to the cavalier comment What is this? in reference to the young woman’s staccato narrative, “Trying to move on. It was the hardest thing to do. It still is.”
If, indeed, instructors’ exhortations to employ reasoning and details, to keep repetition to a minimum, or to support one’s hypothesis are dealing in rhetorical jargon that students fail altogether to grasp, we shouldn’t find it surprising that a student attempting to parody such criticisms throws the terms around with their content more or less empty. But then, as Lutz makes his way through the four-page handwritten note (lackadaisical handwriting is a final criticism, with lackadaisical misspelled and crossed out twice), he cannot maintain the posture of the mean teacher. Look at the progress of the following three marginal comments:
- If you have decided to keep reading this, all I’ve had to say, you would realize that this isn’t a joke. No reason to tell dude to stop. Useless filling sentence.
- I have no reason to hide, lie, or hold anything back from you. If there is no reason to lie, why isn’t the truth being told?
- I just hope to God you have thought about me. I have not.
None of the comments makes sense in terms of “correcting” a paper. More to the point, they move from dismissing (and misinterpreting) what the writer is doing, to questioning the writer’s adherence to “truth,” and finally to a direct response in first person. Insofar as the marginalia are revealing, not of the letter’s author, but of its recipient, we see in this series how Lutz himself is resisting his ex’s appeals, sticking to his version of whatever transpired between them, and hardening himself against any emotional response. It’s a sad story — and not, whatever one might think of the university’s response, “hilarious” or innocent in any way. But again, I wonder if Lutz views his instructors as free to impugn student writers’ legitimacy or engage in ad hominem attacks.
Finally, in the summary by which he defends his “grade,” Lutz writes, You need to stop contradicting yourself and pick a side. There, surely, we catch a whiff of the sort of harangue that may help students perform well on the essay portion of the SAT but that dooms them to any sort of nuanced or interesting argument. Choose a position; be consistent; stick to your argument, come hell or high water. It’s a Custer’s Last Stand approach to writing an essay, and I figure that Lutz’s instructors beat it into him, or he wouldn’t be deploying it in this supposed joke.
Meanwhile, Lutz’s ex, for what it’s worth, I think you’re well out of it. And your handwriting beats his by a long chalk.
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