The Academic English Approach as a Model of Missing the Point


“What would you say… you do here”

—Bob, Office Space

I would like to begin by presenting, without any additional commentary, three anecdotes that hopefully can serve to illustrate both what I plan to argue against, and why you may detect an undercurrent of frustration in the ensuing 4,000 words.

Anecdote 1:

It has been alternately my pleasure and my misfortune to have taken a few classes on Canadian literature. One of these, memorably entitled “Canadian Literature in Transnational Times,” skewed toward the latter. Among several other works, our professor had selected Wayson Choy’s All That Matters for study. The novel, a quiet investigation of the life of a young Chinese immigrant and his family in the 1930s and 40s, explores issues of race, cultural clashes, the historical injustices enacted upon nonwhite Canadians, and probably much more.1 Imagine my surprise, then, when my professor began one of her lectures by saying “I’d like to explore the possibility of a queer reading,” and proceeded to argue that the book’s protagonist is in fact gay, unbeknownst to his family, his supposed love interest, himself, and to the reader. Her reasoning for this was simple: since homosexuality was so strongly detested in this time period, one would expect only tiny, barely extant clues as to its existence in any one character, or perhaps even none at all. This, she claimed, is exactly what we find in All That Matters. The protagonist never comes out, or expresses any outright desire for another man, but there is one point, when his best friend is about to leave for World War II, when he seems like our protagonist is trying to say something, but can’t, instead trailing off in an ellipsis. This, my professor contended, is perfectly consistent with the character being gay. In her words, “you can fit a lot inside an ellipsis.”

Anecdote 2:

Run Lola Run is a German film from 1998, that tells the story of Lola, who must somehow get 100,000 Deutsche Mark within twenty minutes in order to save her boyfriend. The movie is elliptical: Lola’s attempt to get the money plays out three times, with slightly different results each time, both for her and for the people she meets. As you might expect, this brings up themes of chance vs. fate, the ethics of breaking the law to save someone, etc., and the movie is far from subtle about this. And yet, when my film studies class met to discuss it, we spent about half of our sixty minute running time talking about an element that one of my classmates found very important: a small, out of focus, edge-of-frame sign, visible in frame for about a second, that indicates the entrance to the subway. This was meant to be important, according to my fellow student, because the sign is blue, in contrast to Lola’s red hair, and thus this sign exists as an antithesis to Lola’s character,2 acting as a symbol of escape, even as the camera relegates this symbol to the background to show Lola’s inability to leave her difficult situation.

Anecdote 3:

About midway through a booksmash3 in my YA literature class, one of the competitors recommended Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a book about a boy who befriends a girl with terminal cancer in the last months of her life, and through the inspirational power of her painful death grows as a person. “But don’t bother with the movie,” she said, “it changes his character so much. He’s a bit of an asshole in the movie.” I silently agreed with the latter point, even if I think that filmmakers can kind of do what they want with an adaptation. The girl in front of me, however, felt the need to raise her hand (odd, considering the speaker was being timed and had made no indication that she would be fielding questions) and then to just start speaking without being called on (even odder, for the same reasons), asking the speaker “but did you notice his autism?” Whether out of extreme politeness or surprise at the incongruity of such a sentence, the woman stopped dead in her time-sensitive tracks, tried to parse the sentence one more time before just muttering “what?”

“He’s on the spectrum. It never comes out and says it or anything, but if you look at how he acts, how he’s kind of closed off and keeps people at arm’s length, and how he really closely analyzes every social situation he’s in,4 it totally makes sense. The movie really comes alive if you think about it like that.”

The duck quack that had been set up as a buzzer helpfully filled in the moment’s silence, before three or four people made a few generally agreeable hmms, grunts, and “that’s interesting”s. This, about a movie that gives no indication whatsoever that the protagonist has any diagnosable psychological abnormality, in which his social machinations are shown to actually be very successful, and through which the protagonist changes to become more emotionally open and less relentlessly self-aware (thus doing who knows what to his supposed condition).

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  1. Like the majority of students in the majority of English classes, I read less than half of the assigned readings, which is another sort of inbuilt problem with current upper-level education, but one probably best dealt with another time.

  2. I’m not sure how well-versed this student was with the physiology of human sight, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the opposite of blue is actually yellow.

  3. It’s like competitive book recommendation, and is about as exciting as it sounds.

  4. It’s unclear where this girl got the impression that normal teenage standoffishness and insecurity is a sign of being on the autism spectrum. Seeing as I am by her definition autistic as well, it makes sense that I didn’t bother to ask.