Monthly Archives: December 2012

Oh how I wish I could send some Howlers…

I am now halfway through my 20th year of being a college professor. You might think, after so many years, that I would have acquired a whole load of wisdom about how best to motivate students and nurture them as they move toward their goals. If I had the time to think about it, I probably have acquired some insights about teaching and learning that serve my students well. At this time of year, though, I’m not thinking about such lofty things as teaching philosophy or educational theory. I’m fantasizing about sending Howlers.

For all of you who are not fans of the Harry Potter books and films, a Howler is a magical letter which, in the most deliciously animated way, chastises the recipient in the writer’s own voice. For those who have seen a Howler in action, enjoy it again; for those who have not, enjoy your first introduction here. Just click on poor Ron who has gotten a Howler from his deeply disappointed mother.


Since Thanksgiving, I have done very little other than provide feedback on student writing. I am not fond of rote memorization in my upper level classes. As a result, I assign a lot of written work. One very effective way that people learn is through writing. In my Movies & Madness class, there are no exams. There are instead many different kinds of writing assignments. I expect students to write and revise and revise some more to hone their writing skills while they are learning to apply what they are being exposed to in class. Important in this process, however, is an essential skill: the writer needs to respond to feedback in a meaningful and constructive way.

One of the papers students in Movies & Madness write is a Film Analysis Essay. The task is for them to select a film and develop theme-based arguments concerning the impact of the film’s content related to mental illness on the individuals who see it and on culture in general. In other words, what messages does the film send to the viewer about mental illness and its treatment and what larger impact might this have? The most popular films among students continue to be films such as Fight Club (Fincher, 1999), The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991), A Beautiful Mind (Howard, 2001), and Shutter Island (Scorsese, 2010). Unfortunately, students sometimes approach these films in a way that leads them down a dead end street.

Here’s a common example. With Fight Club, students are frequently tempted to frame their papers with an argument that the film accurately presents Dissociative Identity Disorder. The dead end street usually takes the form of looking at whatever version of the DSM criteria comes up first in a Google search and scanning for evidence in the film that confirms their argument. Let me repeat the critical part of that: they only look for confirmatory evidence to support their hypotheses. What they have not learned to do is look for disconfirming evidence. If the criteria is two or more identities, they see two characters who are eventually revealed to be parts of the same person. Boom. That’s one confirming point. The next criteria is that the identities alternately take control. That seems to fit. Boom. The next criteria is not remembering personal information. The Narrator does seem clueless about what’s been going on. Boom again. At this point, I’ve had more than one student argue that the film is actually educational. That’s when I want to send the first Howler (because I say in class at the beginning of every term that Fight Club isn’t an accurate presentation of anything other than men being wonderfully violent). Apparently, some students take that as a personal challenge to show me up. They clearly haven’t learned that rookies shouldn’t try to show up the person calling balls and strikes. That tends to make umpires cranky, if not vengeful.

What happens next is that I give feedback explaining for example that, while there are two identities apparently inhabiting the Narrator, having them interact and have fist fights is inaccurate. Ergo, the argument that the presentation is accurate is false. When the revised draft comes back (sadly, students rarely come see me to talk through their papers), the spelling and grammar are usually corrected but the argument is only adjusted usually through the use of a tacked on statement (e.g., “While it is somewhat unrealistic to have the Narrator interact with Tyler in this way, the film still shows two very distinct personalities”). Cue Howler number 2. My Ph.D. is obviously no match for the power of confirmatory evidence.

This is a bad thinking habit not unique to students. We all do it. The difference is that, in order for them to meet the learning objectives of the course, I need my students to break out of their habitual pattern of accepting as true whatever seems right enough and then arguing, despite feedback to the contrary, that they are still right(ish). Students are particularly prone to arguing that films are accurate representations of mental illnesses when they have enjoyed them. For some reason, finding fault in something that they had fun watching creates too much dissonance for them to to do anything other than say nice things about what they’ve seen. I enjoyed Fight Club. I did. I especially liked seeing Brad Pitt in that girlie bathrobe. That doesn’t stop me from being able critically evaluate what I see in terms of mental illness content.

So, while dreaming of sending perfect Howlers to students who can’t seem to tolerate being told things they don’t want to hear, I will continue to provide feedback filled with disconfirming evidence and hope to bring them around eventually. Thankfully, I’ve learned to save the usual comments in a document so I can cut and paste. Saves loads of time. A Howler would be so much more gratifying, though.

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