Finally, I’m ready to publish material, or, as all the cool cats have taken to calling it, “content,” that may impress the big cheeses at WordPress enough to showcase Aliens in the Family on the front page and thrust its daily view count over the shazam threshold.

You may asking what in hell is a shazam threshold and how the fuck referring to such a thing will in any way help me curry favor with the imbeciles responsible for editors’ picks. The answer to the latter question is simple: it won’t. As a once and probably future LSAT test-taker, I consider it appropriately passive-aggressive to answer the former question in the manner of what one might call a game, by properly using the new vocabulary word in a full sentence: “At 159 and the 71st percentile, my LSAT score fell short of the shazam threshold, even for admission to McGeorge, and my undergraduate GPA of 2.733 strongly suggests that the Pali Highway will be covered from end to end in black ice on the eve of my admission to Pepperdine.” And another example: “Honestly, I do not know what the shazam threshold is for page views on this navelgazing blog; like US News and World Report’s college rankings, any such definition would be inherently subjective, but unlike US News and World Report, I have never insinuated that I deserve $19.95 for my singular insights into these matters.”

That wasn’t entirely coherent. Neither is the bullshit that WordPress graces with its editors’ picks. If you didn’t completely understand the last paragraph, it wasn’t so much because you’re slow as because I was being obtuse and demonstrating what are known in the psychiatric community as “loose associations.” If you’ve ever failed to understand what was so wonderful about one of the recommendations on the WordPress homepage, it’s probably because there was nothing wonderful about it at all.

It takes talent to make a Chris Manno essay look like it’ll be a steaming pile of dogshit; WordPress is overseen by people with exactly that talent. The message was, “Don’t fly into National because of this picture of a DC-3 giving off a metallic glint in the aftermath of a Miami thunderstorm.” Manno’s actual essay was more substantive than that, but there was no reason to expect such a thing after reading WordPress’ pat summary in the context of the other, infinitely worse garbage being peddled on the same page.

Which is one of the reasons that this essay will probably not propel Aliens in the Family into the big time, my savaging the providers of my free publishing platform as a bunch of superficial dolts being another. By all appearances the arbiters of excellence in blogging seek the superficial and the smug or, barring that, solid writing that can be misrepresented as superficial and smug. Of course, they like themselves some lists, too, and I don’t do lists. There may be some gratuitous references to sheep buggery or cannibalism, and as it happens in this essay there just were, but regardless of the pandering depths to which I may stoop in other screeds, one thing that the reader need not fear in this essay is any sort of list. Ain’t happening, and that’s a promise that I can keep, even if I can’t keep promises to refrain from making tasteless references to Michael Jackson for the duration of a paragraph. This is because if the extent of your attention span or reading ability is a numbered and bulleted list totaling 500 words, you’re an idiot, and you most certainly are not ready for college.

Congratulations. You have now finished reading the introduction and have reached the main body of this essay, where the substantive points will be made. Or something like that.  If you were able to follow the preceding paragraphs, you’re probably ready to tackle college-level reading assignments. If you didn’t understand them but think you did, you’re ready for college-level textbooks. Some of the latter, notably Krauskopf and Bird’s Introduction to Geochemistry, you’ll want to read even less than my prose adaptations of lost Chelsea Handler anecdotes and Jim Croce underworld ballads.

Much handwringing is done because college students don’t do their assigned readings. What usually goes unasked is whether the editors did theirs. The answer is usually “no.” In other cases, the editors are justified in entering pleas of “incompetent to read, let alone to stand trial” or “honey badger don’t care.”

None of these pleas reflects well on the state of college publishing. Nor does a random sampling of the overpriced fare inflicted on students. Some reading is left undone solely on account of students’ laziness, but often their laziness overlaps with their common sense, common sense implying a degree of mental competence and free agency that their professors are hesitant to concede. When assigned to read a pedantic, impenetrable stream of ostentatious jargon by a probationary sociology instructor who’s trying to brownnose the tenure committee at Ball State, the student has to ask himself a question: “Is this worth my time, or should I play another round of Angry Birds?” The editors of some awful sociology journal had to ask themselves the same question, as did any graduate assistants involved in writing the doozy. Judging from the quality of the writing and the rigor of the underlying research, the answer was,  “The Ornithology of Emotional Disturbance as Expressed in Popular Computer Games: A Field Study.”

Time is precious, and often a student’s decision to complete a reading assignment comes down to whether anything crucial will be missed by not reading it. In the case of Krauskopf and Bird, the answer was a resounding “no,” since our geochem professor covered the same material in class, but coherently. Another factor is whether the assignment in question will contribute to the student’s leading a well-examined life. A Cliff’s Notes summary would help the student decide, but in the case of our tenure-track friend at Ball State, there won’t be one because the work in question is entirely too inconsequential. The student is flat out of luck. So is the professor, if she would like her article to be read. It stands to reason that a lot of the complaining about students not doing their reading comes from professors who toil to produce scholarly works of utmost obscurity and inconsequence, but they’re the ones who decided not to follow in the steps of Doris Kearns-Goodwin and write things that the public is interested in reading, like coherent histories of American presidents.

This is the point at which I’ll be accused of lionizing a plagiarist, to which I’ll immediately enter a plea of honey badger don’t care. The sorts of people who wag the accusatory finger at Kearns-Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose and the like are not the flower of academia. Most often they’re academic gossip-mongers, Machiavellian cutthroats or cretinous media mercenaries of diminished intelligence and empathy. You’re more likely to hear pedantic, censorious attacks on incidental plagiarism from Anderson Cooper than from Thomas Sowell, who is probably too busy working on his next article about the history of middleman minorities to wallow in that dirty fray. Doris Kearns-Goodwin was naughty and is being scolded by some jealous, less widely read colleague or showboating bullshit artist on the boob tube? After cursory moral triage, I have determined that honey badger don’t give a flying fuck about that, and that we can immediately move on.

Next, we have the question of why students do such a bad job on their writing assignments. Again, let’s start by examining the underlying premises and scrutinizing the faculty for fault. No reasonable person would want to read and grade two dozen ten-page novice research papers in a week. That way lies burial in the slush pile. Harp all you want about the formative effects of research and writing on the student; many writing assignments come across as nothing more than theater of the absurd, and the quality of students’ work, in terms of research (subtly) and writing (baldly), is abysmal. I’m excluding plagiarists, by the way. It’s easy, and arguably quite reasonable, not to take such assignments seriously.

An impressive example of not taking an assignment seriously came tonight from a family friend whose 25-year-old daughter is plodding towards a BA in early childhood education. It’s April 2012, and the daughter has yet to complete a philosophy paper that was due last semester. So far, the professor has given her an open grade instead of an F, and the student is spending the weekend at Disneyland. (I suggested to her parents that she follow my lead and tack on a little white trash sociology; all you have to do is catch the 43 bus down Harbor Boulevard and prepare to have your mind fucking blown.) Alma Mater wasn’t so lax. Consequently, after I rationally decided to stop doing the work for a train wreck of a religion course, I took an F, but honey badger didn’t care. Actually, I take that back. The professor had the temperament of a honey badger, and not much better in the way of teaching skills, which may have been one of the reasons that he ended up teaching at Ball State.

Parents and professors often react to academic work slowdowns like these as if they’re ominous indicators of irresponsibility boding nothing but ill for a student’s future, and maybe they are. They’re also reactions to absurd, stupid and contrived situations. Although I never took a philosophy course as an undergraduate, I did write a very short story in Arabic about Jamila or somebody, a philosophy major at the University of Cairo who drives a taxi to make ends meet and will continue to drive a taxi after graduation. I was being snarky, but that’s exactly what a philosophy major can expect to do for a living.

In the case of my religion course, I initially took it for no other reason than to kill three distribution requirements with one stone, and I didn’t conclude that it was an irredeemable train wreck until after the withdrawal period had ended; I’d knocked her up, so I was on the hook from that point forward. In retrospect, I should have stopped going to class and cut off all contact with the instructor, an unhinged motherfucker who summoned me into his office, cursed at me like a sailor, and yelled at me so violently that I started to fear for my physical safety, all because my first research paper had been a piece of shit. Had he not gone ballistic over such a triviality, that might not have been the last paper that I wrote for him, but I saw no reason to do any additional work for a shitty instructor who was manifestly unstable.

Another thing to consider is that most college students simply don’t have enough experience reading and writing to be competent readers or writers. Malcolm Gladwell seems to be on to something with the “10,000 hour rule.” I haven’t kept track of the number of hours that I’ve spent reading and writing, but my writing was a lot worse in college than it is now, and I’ve had thousands of hours of mostly informal practice since then. I already had a leg up on many of my classmates when I matriculated, largely because I had done more reading and writing than they had. I used to simply stare, slackjawed, at the atrocious writing that I had to peer-critique, but in retrospect I believe that some of these students just hadn’t had enough practice to stand a chance of being competent writers. Wondering why their writing was so shitty is a bit like wondering why a cockpit crew with a combined 1,000 VFR flight hours on Cessnas crashed a 767 into a socked-in mountain. The FAA doesn’t expect such an inexperienced crew to fly a commercial jet, nor does it allow it to do so. By contrast, colleges actively encourage comparably inexperienced and inept students to take on academic work beyond their capacity, and often to incur substantial debt in the process, because encouraging that is extremely lucrative for the colleges and no one has raised enough of a fuss to make them stop it.

If we want to know how undergraduates will perform in real-world situations with real-world consequences, we should put them in such environments. We don’t. Instead, we funnel them into academic institutions that condescend to their students in order to justify featherbedding rackets, and we pretend that these academic institutions are proxies for the real world.

They are not. They’re businesses that have a history at least a century long of forcibly externalizing their costs onto students in search of professional training and credentials. It used to be that a student could enroll in medical or law school without a bachelor’s degree. College costs used to be high; they are now astronomical. Instead of merely being forced to bide their time fulfilling extraneous prerequisites for glorified professional certifications, students are increasingly forced to fulfill these prerequisites either by beggaring their parents or by submitting to long-term debt slavery.

And we wonder where on earth students get the idea that it’s all some kind of sick game.

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