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Summer Brain and Mangled Language

Drawing of "SOS" on the beach sand at the sea.Ah, summertime. A time to turn off your brain, lie on the beach, read magazines with shiny, colourful photos, watch mindless television . . .
Well, maybe for some people. But for me and my students, it’s a time to go into overdrive with summer courses. I often think people taking (or teaching) a summer course must be insane. Why would anyone try to pack into 12 weeks what takes a reasonable person 24 weeks to complete?  There’s something about working even harder and faster during a season that most people associate with relaxation that just doesn’t make sense.
What’s my excuse? As a contract faculty member, I’m always assigned courses in the summer because that’s when tenured faculty don’t want to teach. But I have no excuse for taking on two summer courses instead of one, and I don’t intend to do it again.
Because these courses are online, most of my work involves marking essays. I inevitably find sentences in these essays that give me an instant headache. Here are a couple of examples:

As well, specific visual details, such as horizontal expanse and geo-political boundaries, also make Kendrick’s use of geographical imagery as a means to support his claim that an aesthetic reading of the text is a more distinct and encompassing model of reading the lyric poem seems faulty.

In a similar fashion, to “Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats, Alfred Tennyson’s “Tithonus” uses the analysis of young mortality in comparison to old age to justify the acceptance of Death as a true immortality through Tithonus’ analysis of himself when he was mortal.

Say what?
Not all headache-inducing sentences are long. Here are two more examples:

Bertha, a fatal woman who threatens predetermined gender standards and patriarchy, emasculates herself through violence in order to reach the same level of male influence.

The image evoked seeks to identify the “low” and “gurgled” quality of the laughter to the male gender.

Now imagine reading 8 pages of sentences like these. By the end of one such essay I am either reaching for a bottle of wine or sobbing into the nearest cat’s fur. Or both.
What makes these kinds of essays hardest to mark is that these students have good ideas but can’t express them clearly in writing. I feel like an archaeologist digging through the layers of dirt, suspecting there is something valuable underneath. When these students talk to me in person about their ideas, they are often surprisingly clear, even eloquent. I often tell them to use a voice recorder to get their ideas down before trying to write or have someone transcribe what they say directly. And when a student tells me a particularly great idea, I yell, “write that down now!” But in their writing I see that struggle for the right word in the right order, which must be as painful to write as it is to read.
Although I usually write more clearly than I speak, I can empathize with the struggle and the suffering involved in trying to express one’s thoughts in writing. As a writer, I know the frustration of missing the mark. Even the finished product is only a pale imitation of the perfect story in my head.
And now I have summer brain. As much as I’m longing to get back into revisions on my latest novel, my brain needs a holiday.
Just how much it needs a holiday was vividly revealed a couple of days ago as I returned to that novel, which I haven’t worked on for about a month. I kept seeing strange phrases that I didn’t remember writing such as “the shabby Martin coat” and “the Martin horsehair sofa.” Was “Martin” some brand of Victorian clothing and furniture that I’d forgotten about? I didn’t remember writing these phrases, and I really started to think I was losing my mind when I read, “He thought her eyes were Martin, but they were actually a very dark blue.”
Then I remembered what I’d done. The last time I worked on the novel I decided to change a character’s surname from—you guessed it—Brown to Martin. Then I used the “find and replace” function on my word processing program and blithely clicked “replace all” without thinking how the whole novel would be affected. My latest writing session consisted of hunting down each inappropriate “Martin” and changing it back to “brown.”
After this sobering experience, I have more sympathy for my students. We all make mistakes. We can only hope and pray those mistakes won’t show up in the final draft.
I also must apologise to two of my favourite Victorian poets, who—as God is my witness—will never again appear in my novel as Robert Martining and Elizabeth Barrett Martining.


  1. Fiordan

    Perhaps students were taught somewhere along the way that if they throw together enough abstruse vocabulary it will make them sound clever and get them an A. Or maybe they are so confused by professors’ lectures that they just hear a mangled bunch of big words that make no sense to them and so … imitation is the sincerest form of flattery ! Ha ha.

  2. Clarissa Harwood

    Both options are possible, I suppose! Some students are definitely surprised when I tell them I want them to use clear, simple, direct language and to stay away from the thesaurus. Bad things happen when students use a thesaurus!

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