On the first day of class, my freshman English students generally encounter one of two things: the paint can or the Bugs Bunny cartoon.
In the paint can scenario, I ask a brave volunteer to open an old container of latex that I have brought into class. When (s)he figures out that a tool is needed, I offer a pocketknife, only to berate the Brave Volunteer about safety before the attempt gets too far under way. Yes, I tell the class, the knife can open the container—but at the risk of breaking the blade or (not incidentally) slicing through one’s tendons.
In the cartoon scenario, I show a clip from the 1951 Chuck Jones feature Rabbit Fire in which Bugs fends off Elmer Fudd by declaring that it’s actually duck-hunting season. This leads to an exchange between Bugs and Daffy consisting of shouts of “Wabbit season!” “Duck season!” until a bamboozled Daffy declares: “I say it’s duck season, and I say, ‘Fire!’ ” We all know what happens after that, of course.
True, I say, Bugs wins the argument—but the discussion consists largely of shouting and rhetorical deception. I tell my students that I want to enable them to argue in ways that go beyond yelling and verbal sleight-of-hand. Likewise, as with those who open paint cans with pocketknives, neophyte writers can usually “get the job done”—right up until the day when something goes wrong and they are left metaphorically bloody-handed.
All of this is an effort to impress upon my students that despite the apathy or even antipathy with which many of them approach English classes, the subject matter really does have real-life implications and applications—something that was underlined by a recent episode in New York state.
In late January, an assistant news editor at The Spectrum, an unofficial student publication that serves SUNY Buffalo, participated in a pro-con opinion feature on tattoos. In a column headlined “Why Put a Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari?” , the 19-year-old editor (who shall hereafter be referred to as Youthful Writer) urged her fellow female students to consider the attractiveness question. “We [women] hold some serious power in our hands, because—as corny as this sounds—we hold the world’s beauty,” she wrote. Tattoos? They’re indelible, unnecessary, unclassy, and unproductive in terms of self-improvement:
“Invest your time, money, and effort into a gym membership, or yoga classes, or new clothes, or experimenting with different hairstyles if you’re craving something new with your body, not a tattoo,” Youthful Writer advised.
“I promise, it will be a much more rewarding experience, and you won’t find yourself in a rut when your future grandkids ask you what’s up with the angel wings on your upper back as you’re in the middle of giving them a life lesson on the importance of values and morals.”
Then the sky fell in.
“I woke up today and had 938 hate mails, 646 nasty Facebook comments, and dozens of mean-spirited tweets,” the writer stated in a Feb. 2 follow-up column. One person sent a comment consisting of two words: “stupid cow.” Twenty-one people referred to her as what euphemistically might be termed the C-word.
Some of the less thoughtful comments posted with the original essay, which featured the author’s picture:
■ “This woman needs a kick in her ugly ass face. She probably wrote this while getting a pedicure on her hobbit feet.”
■ “I would like to apologise for whoever brought you up (I imagine it was a shallow, vapid excuse for a human being who you call your mother) . . .”
■ “This article was written by a self-righteous, solely self-interested little twit . . .”
■ “[Y]ou are NOT a Ferrari. You are, at best, a 2003 Dodge Caravan. . . . Get over yourself, and get to work with that gym membership you suggested other people get. You look like you could use some exercise.”
■ “You are a prime example of the narrow minded idiots that try to enforce their own personal rules onto another human being. Please take your own ‘values and morals’ and shove them up your retentive ass.”
So was this a prime example of a knife-and-a-paint-can episode? Ironically, I’m not sure. I might like to think that a semester or two of my freshman-comp pedagogy, or some wisdom from my years as a copy editor on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s opinion pages, would have helped Youthful Writer avoid some of the verbal napalm. But perhaps not.
Frankly, had this piece been submitted for my publication approval during my journalistic days, I would hardly have blinked. The rules and expectations for a newspaper opinion column are different from those for a classroom researched position paper—less space to work with, less emphasis on things like naysayers and the careful positioning of oneself in an intellectual conversation, more leeway for personal expression. In fact, what struck me when I read “Why Put a Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari?” was its rather restrained tone, compared to many of the reactions to it. (In fact, I see more incendiary speech on an almost daily basis on my Facebook feed.)
Perhaps the real lesson of this episode for our students is the importance of understanding the audience—the intended one and the unintended ones. In her follow-up column, Youthful Writer said she did not anticipate the effect of her words in the viral Internet world: “All this hate has shaken me. I never meant to be vindictive toward an entire subculture. That’s why its response was so unexpected to me.”
And for those of us who try to help students understand and master the intricacies and power of language, this is a first-class example—drawn from the experience of one ordinary collegian—of the rubber-meets-the-road applicability of those seemingly ivory-tower lessons on argumentation.