Calling the US: the big opening generalisation

Captain America mashes up several sorts of antiquarianism at once

Hoplite, white knight, or world policeman, who can tell?

It’s time for one of those questionably-advised posts about teaching, and for extra value I’m going to combine it with national stereotyping, so surely there’s no way this will offend anyone… Bear with me, though, I hope it will make sense and hurt no feelings. This job is now, I think, the third one in which I’ve taught medieval history to students visiting from the USA on years abroad or similar schemes. It’s always a little heart-breaking, because they have to adjust not just to what seems to be a different kind of writing but also to a different kind of marking. London, Cambridge and Oxford all have mark schemes for history that I’ve used which run 1-100, but in which by far the greater part of that band is never used: anything below 40 is a fail (at London 35) and although anything above 70 is first-class (or A, in the conversion-to-US standards I’ve usually been given), marks higher than 75 are very rarely given. 90 and up is almost unheard-of and would basically imply ‘ready for publication’. The working range is therefore usually 45-75, in which lie all the grades that almost everyone will get. (Here’s the Oxford scheme in PDF.) It’s slightly crazy. Places elsewhere using the full range of marks must presumably grant 70+ more frequently, but we don’t. So I’ve had a number of US students who were used to being straight A students finding that they couldn’t get better than upper second class (= B or B+) and feeling like failures, while we tell them that’s a good mark. It won’t look that way on their transcripts, though. I’ve only had one US student (out of, er, eleven so far) whom I could easily give first-class marks to, and they were recognisedly exceptional, as in not just recognised as such by me. It’s not any lack of brains, it’s just a different way of marking, and to some extent a focus on analysis and critique over narrative placed more centrally in that mark scheme, all of which is a markedly different training to which they have no time to adapt, and I kind of hate doing it to them.

That said, there is one particular habit I have repeatedly noticed, and I had assumed it was just my forming an unfounded association, but others I’ve spoken to here have also noticed it, and I wanted to check in with the US readers and see if there’s something larger going on here. It is the trick of starting the essay with a really sweeping generalisation that tries to make the subject part of a much wider human phenomenon. This will more often than not be couched in an opening such as, “Throughout human history, people have… “. This does of course tend to start them off on the wrong foot as there’s no way they can have the expertise to say that, no-one does. But why do they do it at all? Is it coming from outside the zone where medieval European history actually underlies their community, so that to them it must be so integrated into The Big Story rather than being part of it naturally? Is it just a more global perspective in general? It has struck me that these students probably have a good dose of World Civ somewhere in their training by the time I see this, usually in their third year. Or is there some basic composition manual or style guide in common use in the USA that actually advocates this? Because if there is, someone ought to put some UK disclaimers in its next edition…

29 responses to “Calling the US: the big opening generalisation

  1. Oh yes, this is common, unfortunately, and definitely a bit of a joke amongst instructors who teach a lot of writing (“Since the dawn of time, people have read medieval romance….”), but it’s certainly discouraged and we try to unteach it. I think it’s mostly a problem among first or second-year college students who know that they need to contextualize their argument but lack the rhetorical experience to do so effectively. When speaking to students about their drafts, I’ll often tell them to just lose their first paragraph entirely, as it’s often just fluff or feels like a big wind-up before getting to the actual content of the paper.

    Why this happens in the US but not the UK, I do not know.

    • It’s not completely absent in the UK, but it’s definitely rarer. I would blame this myself on the history syllabus in the UK being so patchy and topic-focused that our students don’t usually feel as if they know enough to say that sort of thing, but there may be other things in play I haven’t thought of.

  2. Yeah, that’s ingrained in American students basically from elementary school on. Especially in high school, we learn the five paragraph essay, which was the only acceptable way to write a paper in my school. That’s why when I first got to college I started essays with sentences like, ‘In literature, as in life, there is often conflict.’ Yep.

  3. My favorite is “All throughout history, people have written in English, and one of those people was Mark Twain.”

    And yes, it’s a very American high school way to write. Composition classes have to spend months beating the five paragraph inverted pyramid openings out of the freshmen.

    The SAT is certainly not responsible for creating the habit, but it does reinforce it. The writing portion of the exam pretty much demands this sort of inanity.

  4. clio's disciple

    Yes. What they said. American students get that structure somewhere in middle school or high school, and U.S. college instructors don’t like it any better than you do.

  5. Yup, what everyone else says. They get taught that they need a “hook” to “grab” the reader, and for some reason that often translates in student writing as “vapid and vague generalization.” I tell students to imagine an informed and interested audience that doesn’t need to be pandered to with a hook — they’re already interested, so get to it!

    And a junior doing study abroad at London, Oxford, or Cambridge should know better! Shame on them!

    Btw, my dissertation director, a former Oxford tutor himself, told me that 2.1 on first-year exams was more like an A- in US terms. Or maybe he was just trying to make me feel better? :)

    On an unrelated note, is there some Christmas snow theme on your blog, or is something wrong with my browser? Or monitor? Or, god forbid, eyes??

    • Oh good, so it’s not just me seeing spots? I was worried it was my laptop or my wireless connection trying to make me think I was going crazy.

      On the subject of the writing skills of juniors, as a former JYA-er (in Greece, though), I’m not that surprised that juniors are still writing that way. After a couple of 200-level English lit classes my freshman year, I didn’t have to write any major papers until my senior year – major, that is, as in requiring an introduction and so forth, because nearly every paper I wrote during my sophomore and junior years was a “reaction” to a reading assignment, rarely more than a page or two. I was sorely out of practice at writing longer-form papers when it came time to do my senior thesis.

      • Sorry, yes, WordPress have a snow theme for Christmas, I should probably switch it off here if it’s freaking people out, but it is, you know, snowing where I am, if not now precisely every morning for the last few days.

        Laura, that does sound a lot like the London papers I got actually; I sent one or two of those back saying “this is a literature review not an essay”.

  6. What everybody else said. They do it and we hate it and try to beat it out of them. It has a lot to do with not knowing how to deal with time and place, I think, and also a fear of the specific. The more general, the less wrong. BUT, what I try to tell them is that there are better ways to say you aren’t sure of something that are perfectly legit.

  7. looks like fairy dust on my screen! Or are you celebrating all that snow we hear you are having?

    Re: grades there is a huge problem with grade inflation in US colleges and Universities. Average GPA just keeps going up every year – one would think all American kids are geniuses. Only one Univ is tackling this in a formal way – Princeton – and their student body is up in arms over it. The issue is jobs after graduation – students think that potential employers want high grades so a lower grade could hurt their job chances – I tell my students that employers want skills and knowledge not grades and so they do best to spend their time learning not trying to negotitate a better grade from me. Re: your Americans – count on it – they are freaked by those low grades cause they need high GPA’s to get into grad and law schools.

    • Sadly, I cannot raise those grades for them. But it’s probably worth me sitting the next cohort down and saying to them, “look, what we want you to do here is different from what you may have done at home and here’s how.”

      Snow on, snow off? I will go with the audience on this one.

  8. Please turn the snow off. It hurts our eyes, preciousss.

    I’m finding the comments on this quite interesting, even though I’m not in teaching any more.

  9. Damn. Take a day off from reading Jarrett and miss the snowchaos.

    I once delighted my Greek teacher by starting an essay with “The Greeks were snobs.”

  10. I liked the snow

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  12. “Ever since its beginnings in Greece, European literature has possessed the insight that a man is an indivisible unity of body (appearance and physical strength) and spirit (reason and will), and that his individual fate follows from that unity, which like a magnet attracts the acts and sufferings appropriate to it.”

    That’s the first line of “Dante: Poet of the Secular World” by Erich Auerbach, and it made my jaw drop when I first read it about a year ago and recognized it as a form of the dreaded undergraduate “Throughout time, man has always been concerned with the problem of sadness” opening gambit.

    I suspect that, like an alarming number of things taught in US high school English classes, it is based on assumptions that were popular somewhere between 50 and 150 years ago.

    • It is a member of the species, isn’t it, but a very abstracted one, whose meaning takes some disentanglement. I think the real lesson here is that we accept writing from our peers that we would mark down from our pupils. But does he still have a point?

  13. Victoria Thompson

    I taught very bright NYU students in London for several years. They all did it – either generalisation or hook. Particularly memorable was one who started an essay on Magna Carta with ‘In the 1960s soul diva Arethra Franklin wowed America with her anthem R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And this was basically what the barons wanted from King John’.

  14. That’s a tough situation with the different approaches to marking. It sounds like NZ (at least in my experience) is much closer to the UK model. I can remember being marked down early in my undergrad career for making generalisations and also for being too narrative. Good lessons to learn early in one’s university career, I think. It must be tough to ‘unlearn’ when you’re in your third be year. I wonder if in part it may reflect an anxiety to make medieval history seem more ‘relevant’ to those outside the discipline, especially given recent ill-informed attacks on the study of humanities in general and medieval studies in particular as mere dilettantism.

    • I think there probably is something in that, especially as when I meet this, the students have usually got two years of non-medieval under their belts and are venturing onto this stuff for the first time. The wish to link it to the rest of their degree courses must be quite large.

  15. Interesting post. A few comments.

    This is what I like to call the “dawn of time” intro. Since I teach writing amongst other things, one of the first things I demand of my students is that they never use this type of intro. They will flunk. If I hear from future profs that they have used, I will go back and change their grade to an F. It is verboten.

    Re: “hooks”, hooks are necessary, but *MUST* be tailored to the audience, though as someone above pointed out, somehow telling them to make an interesting, subject driven, on thesis hook comes out as “dawn of time” drivel.

    Re: grading standards et al. What no one has seemed to mention is that the normal grading scale in the US (not ubiquitous, but almost so) is 90-100 is an A, 80-89.9 a B and so on….so a student used to the 80s or 90s to suddenly be getting 60s and 70s and being told that such a low score “is quite good, actually” is going to have make a big adjustment in perspective.

    • Aha, I had wondered about that. That’s actually weird, because I’d have thought the grades were the more translatable measure in that case, but here I have been asked to give numeric scores for visiting US students, which is going to look even worse in that case. I suppose that the US institutions know there is this problem and have ways of reckoning it; maybe that’s why they need the raw score to start with.

  16. Ah well. It could be worse.

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