Have you ever seen a movie with an audition montage? The kind where it quickly cuts from one awful aspiring actor to another, and throwing in the director’s horrified reactions for good measure, despite his best efforts to maintain his composure?

My first conferences were like that this past year.

It’s something I carried over from Osborn College–over there, we were expected to be the kinder, gentler “good cop” teachers to the “bad cops” that did unpleasant things like fail students and give tests. Composition was about growing your students’ writing abilities, not fascist grades.

Of course, I assigned the fascist grades anyway, and just took care to document each step thoroughly, but the idea of a face-to-face conference before each paper was due stuck with me, since freshmen who might otherwise hand in a piece of shit can sometimes be cajoled into improving their work if the instructor is right there.

To get things rolling, I had assigned the kids a movie analysis paper. We didn’t have time to read a novel, and they all would have watched the movie anyway, so I drew up a list of critically acclaimed movies that met the most crucial criteria of all: I liked them.

The first thing students would do was claim they didn’t have any idea what to write.

“I just don’t know what to write about,” said Ted, who had chosen Braveheart.

“Well, consider the character of William,” I said. “What was his motivation? Why did he do what he did?”

Ted shrugged. “Because he hated the English. That’s all I’ve got right now.”

“Well,” I asked, “Why did William hate the English?”

“Because they were the bad guys,” Ted said.

“Did you even watch the movie, or just read the back of the DVD case?” I wanted to ask.

“Think harder,” I said. Of course, I invariably did all the thinking, using guided language to get the student to realize, seemingly of their own free will, that William Wallace hated the English because they robbed him of the oppurtunity to live a simple life and raise a family.

Then there were the people that actually watched the movies, but whose mental dictionaries had an entry for “analysis” that read “see: summary.”

“I’m doing pretty good,” said John, handing me his draft. It felt heavy enough to be the requisite three pages, but that could be deceiving.

My trained comp instructor’s eye zoomed over it: “John Nash is a college student. He is having a hard time coming up with an idea. He doesn’t go to class, just hangs around with his roommate. Then he comes up with his original idea and..” I flipped to the end. “…and he starts ignoring his hallucinations, and John Nash is able to save his beautiful mind.”

“Do you have any questions about what an analysis entails?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“Do you need a little help in, uh, polishing your rough draft with more details?” That was always the key word: details. Why the hell did John Nash do all that stuff? I know that he did it. I saw the damn movie in the theater when it came out.

“Nope.”

“Do you need me to roll this up as tight as I can and shove it up your ass?” I should have said. Instead, I read through the entire thing asking that magic question–why?–like a five-year-old. The conference time I had with the students was the only time when I could be sure those questions were being asked, and I meant to make the most out of it.