Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lazy Americans

"Lazy American Students -

Writing Note here before I get carried away - I am writing, slowly but surely. One of my projects. I have a vague goal of having one of my favorite projects ready for crit by my birthday (September) and then possibly ready for query by Spring 2011. That is my more generous goal. I really want to have something to query by my birthday.

The above link goes to a muy interesante article regarding one teacher's perspective on the American education system, and in particular her American students vs. foreign transfers or immigrant students.

Chinese undergraduates have consistently impressed me with their work ethic, though I have seen similar habits in students from India, Thailand, Brazil, and Venezuela. Often, they’ve done little English-language writing in their home countries, and they frequently struggle to understand my lectures. But their respect for professors - and for knowledge itself - is palpable. The students listen intently to everything I say, whether in class or during office hours, and try to engage in the conversation.

Too many 18-year-old Americans, meanwhile, text one another under their desks (certain they are sly enough to go unnoticed), check e-mail, decline to take notes, and appear tired and disengaged.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that all American students are the same. I’ve taught many who were hardworking, talented, and deeply impressive. They listened intently, enriched class discussions, and never shied away from rewrites. At their best, American students marry knowledge and innovation, resulting in some astoundingly creative work.

But creativity without knowledge - a common phenomenon - is just not enough.

On the subject - personally speaking, I believe it is a culture thing. Speaking for myself, it is really easy to not take the education side of school seriously when your parents, teachers, and peers are pressuring you to have a normal social life. I could be wrong, but elsewhere, parents pressure their kids to put their education first. This could be because a quality education is the difference between living in utter squalor and being successful and going places.

There are other things - like I'm sure we all had to read Amy Tan in college. There is one short story taken from one of her books, where the protagonist's mother is trying to steer her daughter in a direction where she will be rich and famous. The daughter obeys and fails each time, and grows up resenting her mother for pushing her so hard and never being satisfied with her as is.

Compare that to a Christmas movie I watched over and over the past week... I forgot the name of the movie, but Melissa Joan Hart (one of my alltime favorite actress people) plays the main character. She is all set to have a really cwappy Christmas because she has to go home for the holidays and she doesn't have anything BRILLIANT to show her family - not even a boyfriend. Her older sister is going to college to become a lawyer. Her brother is practically married to somebody. She is the only one who doesn't have a lot to show - and she works at a diner as a waitress. So she kidnaps Mario Lopez' character, drags him home with her, and introduces him as her boyfriend.

By the end of the movie, her parents fall apart and mom attacks dad for trying to mold the children into mirror images of him - all successful, respectable, wealthy, and fab. And one by one the children confess how they are all well short of his expectations (sister dropped out of college, brother dumped gf and is gay, Melissa Joan Hart's character is now a felon).

Actually, the only person who stands up and embraces being successful is Mario's character, and the cool thing is he explains how he worked for every bit of his success on his own - this because he came from a poor background.

On one hand... I'm thinking that the movie had one thing right - there is nothing wrong with doing what you want in life, instead of bending yourself out of shape to fit somebody else's expectations. That is the American way. Our kids are taught from daycare on that they can be whatever they want in life. If they think that math is a braincell-straining-nightmare, then nobody is going to push them to become an engineer like Dad. If they want to play games for a living, then maybe there is a career that needs somebody like that.

Hey! Anybody watch Stargate Universe?! The main character is a video gamer who was swooped up by the army because of his gaming skillz.

On the other hand, movies like that drive me nuts - especially since so many are aimed at kids. Somehow or other, they take respectable and wealthy people (who worked for their living) and tear them down to size just because they wanted their kids to be successful and self-sufficient. It kinda encourages parents to look the other way when their kids spend high school and even college goofing off with friends instead of going after those difficult and demanding degrees where they are certain to get a hugely successful job.


I read that article a different way, at least from the aspiring writer's perspective.

That line - "creativity without knowledge - a common phenomenon - is just not enough" - reminded me of something I was gabbing about with my older sister the other night. This was after I read "Twilight" and realized to my HORRRRRRRROR that I enjoyed it (you know I did if I started reading Christmas afternoon and didn't stop until 5AM yesterday morning).

We started out discussing Twilight and how I refused to read it beforehand. Then we gabbed about people who simply refuse to read - period.

There are actually people who only read when absolutely forced to (like in HS and college), but spend all their time writing.

I know how easy it is to get into the mental block that reading while writing might unconsciously affect your writing style. This is so true! But the risk is well worth it considering how reading expands your mind and perspective beyond the confines of your skull.

Because writing is so solitary an exercise, it is very easy to get into writing block situations - recycled characters, situations, unrealistic plotlines based on your own narrow worldviews, etc...

Reading teaches you how to develop stronger characters and to go out of your own personal comfort zone.

And not just reading fiction.

Go online and read everything you can of the news, gossip, history, and science.... everything you think will expand your mind and feed it new ideas. And also learn to see the world as other people might see it.

This doesn't mean you have to give up your own viewpoints and go wishy-washy. It just means that when you decide to write a novel with a current issue (teenage pregnancy, for example), you will know how to write that novel to show a certain viewpoint in a way that it can be absorbed by people who have other viewpoints.

FWIW, I reached this 'open your mind and expand' point after logging onto a sorta-religious chatroom and eavesdropping on people I thought I knew well. When chittering to them in person, it is easy for people to be on their best behavior and socially conscious. When it comes to writing on forums or elsewhere, these people turn into something different.

I was honestly shocked by their lack of understanding.... basically they held the proper viewpoints, but didn't know how to explain WHY. They never took the time to educate themselves. Theology is hard and boring, I understand. But if you go onto chatrooms and start arguing with people over theology, you better know how to explain yourself.

What usually happens is these people resort to emotional warfare. And fight by personally attacking their opponents. Their weakness is immediately perceived by their opponents who go to town exposing that ignorance and capitalizing on it. Those opponents not only destroy the ignorant-arguer, but use the ignorant-arguer to attack the establishment that the ignorant-arguer was trying to defend.

This is something that may and frequently does happen with beginning writers.

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