The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Thursday, February 24, 2005

To commemorate the passing of Hunter S Thompson, I thought perhaps I'd better find out who he was. Googling gonzo journalism revealed little other than fansites which assume an overly intimate familiarity with the writings of the departed, whereas my knowledge of him was restricted to a Times obituary, several photographs of an old man in seventies drag with guns, and the urbane knowledge that Johnny Depp was after his ashes.
I digress. The context, please.

I have a problem in teaching students how to critically follow a leading argument. I find it difficult to explain. I can Tell them, surely, but I can't make them find for themselves.
When they read an editorial, they can pull its style apart, but not its structure, and certainly not its technique if it tends towards the biased.

why bother? Well. The deputy head is ever nagging me to secure my sixteen year old students a C grade, but I think they're capable of an A grade.
Ability is not the indicator for academic success - success is an equation that combines ability and motivation.
My all male class of C grade students lack motivation.

Not in class, where they're being attended to and harried constantly, but at any other point in their lives: exams, coursework, group work, homework, revision.

Ah, revision. Most of them have by now admitted that they've not ever done any.

Instead of poring over the syllabi of an afternoon, I scour the past papers, and the examiners' analyses. Whenever possible, I contact examiners to ask them what it is about X's news report, or Y's poetry essay that makes it the top grade. All responses are filtered, and within a mere ten years of initiating my study, I now possess a pretty effective matrix of how to signify you are an A grade student without having to actually become an A grade student.
(Telling students there's a cheap shortcut always works. If you've ever bought a book on how to stop smoking or prepped for an IQ test, you know this already. Wouldn't it work on you?
So, I decided that being able to identify the structure of an argument, its tricks, wiles and stages, and find flaws in logical reasoning therein would fool the examiner into awarding top marks in any reading paper. (I did once buy books that showed how to teach such an enigma, but some teacher swiped them, has had them for five years, is unlikely to start sharing anytime soon.)

Which brings me back to Mister Hunter S Thompson, and the funniest lesson I've had in years.

After defining the stylistic characteristics of gonzo journalism, finding out about the sixties escapades that could have prompted such changes, and looking at a few examples, my students were suddenly clearer about identifying objectivity.
We selected random current news events according to familiarity, and wrote unbiased, standard, inverse pyramid structure reports.
Discussed the idea that no writing, no journalism can ever truly be considered objective.

Then unleashed the mania. They were to rewrite the report in the New Journalism (gonzo) style. Super-subjectivity, first person involvement, emotional hyper reality, profanity, lawlessness were all true to the spirit of the man who'd defined the style.

Reaching the usually optimistically termed plenary of the lesson (class casualty: a mere one; Jared, and his annoying whistle. And annoying socks balled up inside annoying hat, attached to lethally weighted swinging device constructed from winter scarf.) I asked for volunteers to read out the gonzo versions.

Suddenly, boys who'd been been more or less silent for two whole years couldn't contain their giggles. Kids with rampant dyslexia begged friends to verbalise what they'd written. A deathly hush as the first piece - entitled, in execrable taste 'and you think Indonesia would offer us aid?' - was intoned in officious, newsreader style. I had to mime blushes and hot flushes to cover the unconventionality of what I'd allowed to be read.
There was profanity. There were unacceptable attitudes. There was exaggeration for comic effect, and deep, deep hyperbole.

And there were a class of boys having the best fun they'd had all year. Really enjoying what language can do to an audience.

It was great. Next week: guns.*

[* this is a joke.]