Monthly Archives: September 2011


This week I conducted a little experiment in my Introduction to Literature Class. Students were assigned to read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin. After a general lecture on symbols and archetypes (and no discussion of the readings), I passed out a pop quiz over the two stories. The students were told to take the quiz, turning their quizzes face down when they were finished. It took them about 5-minutes to take the quiz.

When everyone was finished, I pointed out that on the right-hand corner of the back of each quiz was a number, 1 – 10, in either red or black. Correspondingly, I had a deck of playing cards in my hand that were 1-10 black, 1-10 red. I then told them I was going to give them three options (as follows):

Option 1 – Each student would turn in their test and receive the grade they had earned.

Option 2 – I would draw a card and whichever quiz matched the color and number would be the quiz I graded with everyone in the class receiving that grade.

Option 3 – I would draw a card and the quiz that matched the number and color would receive a 0. But everyone else in the class would receive a 100 on the quiz.

My stipulations were that whatever decision they made had to be unanimous. If they could not come to an agreement, we would just use Option 1. Before I opened the floor to discussion, I drew three columns on the board and took a preliminary vote.

Option 1 – 13 in favor

Option 2 – 0 in favor

Option 3 – 3 in favor

(I only had 16 students in class so I pulled the cards that correlated with a test that wasn’t taken.)

The students were then allowed to ask questions and discuss their decision.

Some of the questions they raised to me:

Do I drop the lowest quiz grade? No.

If they selected Option 2, would that single test be curved? No.

Could they pick whose test would count for Option 2? No.

Could they pick who would take the 0 for Option 3? No.

Could someone volunteer to take the 0 for Option 3? No.

The questions they posed to each other included:

Can everyone afford to take a 0 if we do Option 3? No.

Who is confident in their answers? About 6 of them.


An older student said that he wouldn’t feel right taking a grade he hadn’t earned. Another argued that Option 2 was the most fair thing to do because it made things equal for everyone. One student admitted that he hadn’t read anything and volunteered to a 0 because that’s probably what he got anyways.

I took a second vote.

Option 1: 7 in favor

Option 2: 1 in favor

Option 3: 8 in favor


The debate continued. One of the athletes repeated over and over that he knew he’d made a perfect score and didn’t want to risk it. The girl next to him argued that it was only a 1 in 16 chance he’d be chosen. He then asked how much the quiz counted. I told them it wasn’t going to cause anyone to fail. The students asked to take an informal vote before I took the final vote. The vote was now 14 in favor of Option 3, 2 in favor of Option 1. The two hold outs happened to be the oldest students in the class. Their younger peers argued the odds and the great opportunity. One girl offered to bring candy to whoever ended up with the 0.

I took the final vote.

Option 1 – 0

Option 2 – 0

Option 3 – 16

I fanned out the cards and had a student draw one. He held it up for the class to see. Cheers and sighs of relief followed as everyone checked their papers for Red 6. At first we thought that I had missed a dead card. Then a hand went up from the far side of the room.

“It’s me.”

He was the only student who did not speak the entire debate. The students asked him if he had read the story.

“I actually read them both last night and reviewed them this morning.”

Several people groaned.

“Why did you have us do this?” one of the older students asked me.

Several students pointed out the similarity to the stories. I told them that they had essentially selected a scapegoat–one person to be penalized for the good of the group. When I used that word some of them got defensive.

“You sound like you’re mad at us.”

I explained I wasn’t mad; I was surprised. I never thought they would do it even though it’s human nature. I brought up genocide, witch hunts, and the stories we’d read.

“You’re trying to make us feel bad.”

“You wanted us to pick 2 or 3.”

“You’re bringing up genocide to make us seem like bad people.”

“It’s just a silly quiz.”

“We were all in.”

I agreed that it was admirable that they all were willing to assume the risk for the perceived reward. But then I asked who really thought they would be chosen. No one looked at me as the Reading Skipping Martyr from earlier reminded me that he had volunteered. I asked if he still volunteer if it meant giving up his freedom so that others could be free.

“People I care about.”

I told him it didn’t work that way–you couldn’t chose who to save.

“No, I wouldn’t.”

He then argued that I should have put in a trick card that would have given them all a 100 with no sacrifice. I asked if that was the way the world worked.

No one had an answer.


Final Thought: I really believed they would end up with Option 1 by default because I thought there would be holdouts. It was interesting to watch people change their minds and the reasoning behind it. The final hold out was the older student who didn’t want a grade he didn’t earn. His reason for changing? “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” Many of the students did it just because it was something novel. They all still wanted me to grade their quizzes just so they could see what they would have made.

The irony in all of this is that when I graded the quizzes, there were two perfect scores: The Athlete and The Owner of the Quiz With Unlucky Red 6.

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Retrospective: Avast!

When pondering this month’s Retrospective, I was awash with ideas. But the combination of my daughter’s desired birthday party theme (pirate princess) and the celebration earlier this week of the age old family holiday, Talk Like A Pirate Day gave Pirates the edge. Drink up me hardies, yo ho.


  • Treasure Island–Do yourself a favor and read Robert Louis Stevenson’s story instead of watching one of the gazillion film versions. It really is better. Even than the Muppets. Stevenson grasped the key to making pirates early on: dubious but charismatic. Jack Sparrow should send him a muffin basket.
  • Atlas Shrugged–Who says a pirate can’t exist in a dystopian society? Certainly not Ayn Rand. Ragnar Danneskjöld represents how capitalism can be manipulated.
  • The Sea Hawk–Rafeal Sabitini wrote a number of pirate stories and, outside of Stevenson, is one of the most highly filmed pirate writers. Nothing like some Barbary pirates to feed your vendetta against your traitorous brother.
  • The Island–It might be surprising news that Peter Benchley did write something other than Jaws. This story takes the pirate theme into a more modern setting and questions the role of free will.
  • Quicksilver–How to describe Neal Stephenson’s tome? Historical, fantasy, sci-fi, frame story, romance, picaresque, multi-point of view narrative with pirates and Isaac Newton. That’s a start.


  • Captain Blood–Errol Flynn was a last minute addition to the cast of this high seas adventure and a fortunate one at that. With Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland, it’s a great cast on the brink of glory. Yes, it’s old. But it holds up even without all the effects.
  • The Princess and The Pirate–I remember watching this Bob Hope comedy frequently as a kid. The comedy is silly, but fun and the climax of the film has a Shakespearean flare.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl–Back before the sequels, plot holes, and realization that Orlando Bloom cannot play contemporary characters, Disney did something really weird: they based a movie on a theme park ride centered around the guy who played Edward Scissorhands. There in lies the brilliance. The story is  interesting, the effects are fab (I especially love the pirates ‘taking a walk’ on the bottom on the ocean), and there are fun little references to the ride. However, the guts of this film exist within Johnny Depp. Looking past all his mannerisms and much talked about inspirations, Depp, like castmate Geoffrey Rush, seems to be having a whale of a good time. It’s his pirate party and we’re all invited.
  • The Black Swan–No, not that one. The one with Maureen O’Hara, Henry Morgan, and Tyrone Powers. Less crazy, more swashbuckling.
  • The Princess Bride–When I was a kid, I didn’t realize this movie was a comedy. I just thought it was a really good movie. Which it is. It also happens to be hilarious. And if the Dread Pirate Roberts doesn’t deserve a slot on this list, no one does.

What about you, mateys? What shivers your timbers?


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Kicking It Old School

Next week dawns the beginning of the new season for most television shows. I’m excited for the new season of Modern Family, but I have to say I’m nervous about what used to be a centerpiece to the week for my husband and me: The Office. Michael is gone, Dwight has gotten tired, Jim and Pam are fighting the Moonlighting Curse–sigh. So in honor of what once was, I share this with you.


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I am Emma

If you ask any woman who reads much, particularly who reads Austen much, she will most likely tell you she loves Elizabeth Bennett. There is nothing new about that–we love and her and, more importantly, we all tend to think we are her. And who wouldn’t want to be like Lizzie? She is intelligent, witty, spirited, lively, fun, and wants to marry for love, something she manages to do while keeping her values and not sacrificing who she is. I won’t pretend I don’t like to think of myself as akin to her.

But there’s a glitch.

It’s just not true.

If I’m being honest, I am not a Lizzie. I’m not even an Elinor or a Fanny. In truth I (and I suspect other women) am an Emma.


Emma Woodhouse is by far the least likable of Austen’s ladies. She’s spoiled, meddling, selfish, neglectful, callous, and arrogant. Granted I am not ridiculously wealthy, as Emma is, but many of the other descriptions fit the bill.

I’m so coddled and spoiled by my friends and family that they actually somehow make it their fault when they fail to remember one of my short comings. For example, once I learn a way to drive some place, I cannot learn a different route. My mind does not work that way. I also don’t know directions or street names in the city I’ve lived in for 20 some years. However, when I get lost or go to the wrong place, people assume it is their fault for forgetting that I am a woman with a graduate education who doesn’t know the name of the street I live on.

Like Emma, I sometimes let my wit or lack of censor go too far, hurting people in the process.

I’m arrogant about my children and my academic prowess.

And I think we’re all a little meddling–what is Facebook if not an interest in meddling in affairs that do not concern us?

But here’s the good news for all us Emmas– We are not completely useless. We have spirit, we are loved, and we love, even if at times we are silly and frivolous. We have our Mrs. Westons who make us laugh, call us on our nonsense, and show us in their reflections of us the better selves we could be. And if we are truly blessed (as I am), we have our Mr. Knightlys who laugh with us and at us, fight with us, challenge us, demand our best, accept our worst, and love us in spite of (and sometimes because of) all our faults.

So tell me readers, which Austen girl are you?



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Girl Crush: Evie

So I’ll admit it, I have a girl crush. It started in 1999 and is still going strong today. I just can’t help it. I love Evelyn Carnahan.


Evelyn Carnahan, better known as Evie, played by Rachel Weisz in The Mummy.


Evie is the best version of the woman I mean to be. She’s intelligent, knowledgeable, and witty. Even when faced with danger, she has a great line (“If he turns me into a mummy, you’re the first one I’m coming after.”) While she is (rightly) afraid of the undead, she doesn’t squeal like Kate Capshaw and make herself totally useless.

Evie is romantic and adventurous. She wants to find the Book of the Dead not for the treasure aspect but for the scholarly thrill. This, however, does not mean she’s cold or stuffy. Evie has her moments of weakness, but she readily recognizes them (“Oh it wasn’t that good of a kiss!”)

Sure she’s clumsy. Brilliance and beauty must have a cost. But she’s brave, loyal, spunky, and smart. And she’s happy being who she is. (“I’m a librarian!”)

It doesn’t hurt that Rachel Weisz excels at playing roles like this. (And I refuse to discuss the third movie where they recast because she just isn’t the same. At all.) She has the rare gift of being surrounded by monsters, special effects, mayhem, and battles and still being a demanding, intelligent presence on screen (it’s not so easy–look at good actresses who get swallowed by movies like this). Her characters are smart, independent and yet accessible. No wonder she married James Bond (Daniel Craig). I would recommend, aside from the first two Mummy films, Constantine, Enemy at the Gates, The Runaway Jury, and The Constant Gardner.

Why should you trust me? I’m an English teacher!


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