For the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain.

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 student-teacher conferences were like that.

It’s something I carried over from teaching at 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.

I assigned the fascist grades anyway, and just took care to document each step thoroughly, but the idea of a face-to-face conference with each student 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. Or at the very least I’ll be able to tell if the shit they hand me has changed appreciably from the shit they had in conference.

To get things rolling, and eager not to repeat the disaster of my short story analysis assignment the previous year at SMU I assigned the kids a movie analysis paper. We didn’t have time to read a novel, and they all would have watched the movie version 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. The fact that the conference was being conducted in a coffee shop on campus stayed my tongue.

“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 opportunity to live a simple life and raise a family.

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