Thursday, July 10, 2008

Reading Comprehension, and the Nutty Generalizations About India It Inspired (A Guest Post)

I was talking to a Ph.D. student I work with, Colleen Clemens, about her experience working as a grader for the AP English exam. She had been assigned to work on a question about an Indian author, Anita Desai (the passage was from Fasting, Feasting), and she was shocked at how the students tended to use the passage as an excuse to throw out a series of flagrant generalizations about India and Indian culture. Incidentally, Colleen went with a group of first-year students to India last December, so she's seen parts of the country herself. The following post, then, is a one-off essay by Colleen:

Recently, I served as a reader for the AP English exam. Imagine a room with 1500 college and high school teachers sitting on folding chairs (with no lumbar support) for eight hours a day, seven days straight, reading the almost one million essays written by nervous, twitchy high school students hoping to test out of their first-year college English course. In a stroke of luck and irony, I was assigned Question Two on this year’s exam, in which students were asked to read a passage from Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting and do a close reading to glean insight into Arun’s experience as “an exchange student.”

As an AP grader, I read the same question all week (over 1100 essays.) In order to make us efficient grading machines, we spent a morning calibrating our responses to the 0 to 9 grading scale—we could see right away that we had much to learn about India from these high school students. Though reading 1100 essays has dulled my memory, I still know that several times I had to stop and mutter to myself comments such as “Yes, there are trees in India” or “No, India is not all trees.” I admit, after traveling there in December, much of India made little sense to my western sensibilities—I am still not sure why I saw an elephant walking in Hyderabad traffic or how people can cross the street with such confidence in Delhi—and I am certainly not an expert on India. But I know that there are bound to be trees in a country of over a million square miles.

I haven’t read the Desai book, but looked it up after I got home. The passage on the exam comes right at the end of Desai’s novel:

[FROM Fasting, Feasting]It is Saturday. Arun cannot plead work. He stands despondent, and when Melanie comes to the door, dressed in her bathing suit with a big shirt drawn over her shoulders, and stares at him challengingly, he starts wildly to find excuses.

Mrs Patton will not hear them. No, she will not. Absolutely not. So she says, with her hands spread out and pressing against the air. ‘No, no, no. We’re all three of us going. Rod and Daddy have gone sailing on Lake Wyola and we’re not going to sit here waiting for them to come home—oh no.’

Arun must go back upstairs and collect his towel and swimming trunks. Then he follows Melanie to the driveway where Mrs Patton is waiting with baskets of equipment—oils and lotions, paperbacks and dark glasses, sandwiches and lemonade. With that new and animated prance galvanising her dwindled shanks, she leads the way through a gap in the bushes to one of the woodland paths.

Melanie and Arun follow silently. They try to find a way to walk that will no compel them to be side by side or in any way close together. But who is to follow whom? It is an awkward problem. Arun finally stops trying to lag behind her— she can lag even better—and goes ahead to catch up with Mrs Patton. He ought to help carry those baskets anyway. He takes one from her hands and she throws him a radiant, lipsticked smile. Then she swings away and goes confidently forwards.

‘Summertime,’ he hears her singing, ‘when the living is eeh-zee--’

They make their way along scuffed paths through layers of old soft pine needles. The woods are thrumming with cicadas: they shrill and shrill as if the sun is playing on their sinews, as if they were small harps suspended in the tress. A bird shrieks, hoarsely, flies on, shrieks elsewhere, further off—that ugly, jarring note that does not vary. But there are no birds to be seen, nor animals. It is as if they are in hiding, or have fled. Perhaps they have because the houses of Edge Hill do intrude and one can glimpse a bit of wall here or roof there, a washing line hung with sheets or a plastic gnome, finger to nose, enigmatically winking. Arun finds the hair on the back of his neck begin to prickle, as if in warning. He is sweating, and the palms of his hands are becoming puffy and damps. Why must people live in the vicinity of such benighted wilderness and become a part of it? The town may be small and have little to offer, but how passionately he prefers its post office, its shops, its dry-cleaning stores and picture framers to this creeping curtain of insidious green, these grasses stiffing with insidious life, and bushes with poisonous berries—so bright or else so pale. Nearly tripping upon a root, he stumbles and has to steady himself so as not to spill the contents of the basket. [Anita Desai, From Fasting, Feasting]

Arun “cannot plead work” and must go on a Saturday excursion with Melanie and Mrs. Patton. Clearly, there is tension in the family (i.e., Melanie has an eating disorder, and Arun knows it), but Arun goes into the “insidious” wild though he would prefer to be back in town. The passage—though only a few paragraphs—evidently was all the students needed to make grand claims about India such as the ones that follow:

Arun cannot possibly speak English. He is so incapable, Mrs. Patton must speak in simple sentences (yes, they conflated the narrator with the character) so Arun has any chance of understanding her. And when she sings “Summertime…when the living is eeh-zee,” Arun doesn’t know the word “easy” so he mishears her (this is an example of “epizeuxis,” a word not one person at the table had seen before—lots of students gave us what we would call the “tour of literary devices,” i.e., “on your left you will see alliteration, on your right you will see pathetic fallacy”). Because he cannot speak English, he doesn’t want to go on the trip. In fact, Indians like to work so much, he wants to work on Saturday (missing the subtlety that he “cannot plead work”) instead of going to the beach, an all-American day that he does not understand because he wants to work; one must remember that Indians are very studious. He wants badly to go into town; India is so crowded, Arun is afraid of having the space available to him by being outdoors. But at the same time, India is a jungle (we saw this word so many times, we actually started a pool at our table, chipping in a quarter and the next person to see it would win the pot) full of wild animals such as tigers. Arun feared being in the wilderness—he couldn’t see the birds, so he didn’t know what else was lurking in the wild. And why go outside when he can be in town where he can enjoy the air conditioning, something he would not have seen in India (many students added this air conditioning detail though the passage does not mention it) even though India is REALLY hot? One student exclaimed “He actually got sweaty!” In fact, Indians live in deserts and are afraid of “woodsy” areas. Inside Arun wouldn’t have to see birds—a scary sight since there are no birds in India. Since India is a primarily urban country, Arun would not know how to be in nature, especially when people in India don’t go on picnics. How could they go on picnics? The women would have to walk behind the men and they would trip over their veils! That is, the few women Arun would have ever seen since Indian men don’t see Indian women, women who don’t wear makeup and are more “natural” than American women. Instead of picnicking, the Indian people who are mostly Muslim spend their time worshipping cows, which Arun would certainly have wanted to do on Saturday instead of going to the beach.

I wish I were making up or exaggerating in this pastiche, but I am sad to report I am not (and I didn’t even mention the students who read Arun as a Native American on the Trail of Tears). Ultimately, many students did note his “uncomfort,” “cultural electrocution,” “discomfortableness,” and “awkwardidity,” but of concern is how angry they were with Arun for not “getting on board” and enjoying an all-American day at the beach. Of when Arun trips over a branch, one student boldly stated "Finally Arun trips, putting a cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that is his misery.” The tenor of many of the essays was that Arun should see how lucky he is to be in the United States and get over his fear of the wild. Most kids saw that he felt uncomfortable, but the general attitude was he was just a spoiled brat—as our question’s skit writers put it, Arun is a “privileged little Punjab”—who doesn’t see the glory of the west. Scariest of all were the students who read Arun as an animal himself, so out of the range of human experience they couldn’t even see that he was a boy.

Some astute students did notice he is silenced by the overbearing Mrs. Patton, that the tension between him and Melanie may have been cultural and gendered, that he feels out of place because he is an exchange student, not simply because he is an Indian out of his “comfort zone”--“a stranger in a strange land.” In the end, the question writers did the students a disservice by writing “Indian writer Anita Desai” in the prompt: this subtle othering of the writer opened the door for students to make wild and unfounded claims about India using Arun—and Desai—as their vehicle. Those students who noticed the difficulty of negotiating between cultures scored well on the question and may perhaps be exempt from their first-year composition course. The others will be sitting in my class next year, and I will do all I can to debunk their repository of generalizations about India and the rest of the world.

[Amardeep here again.]
Even if you haven't read the novel, what do you think of the passage above? What does it tell us about the relationship between Arun, Melanie, and Mrs. Patton, and what is the author doing with all of the strange imagery about the "benighted wilderness"?

And -- would this passage by the "Indian writer, Anita Desai" lead you to comment on whether there are trees in India, whether or not there are cities, electric power, English-speakers or automobiles there?


sarah said...

Great post! I have a friend who grades AP English exams every summer and always comes back with wild stories.

This might top them, though. (Especially the ones who thought Arun was a Native American who was walking the Trail of Tears with swim trunks and lemonade? What?)

Amazing they got all that out of 'Indian writer Anita Desai'-- I mean, other than Arun's name there's nothing "Indian" about the passage at all. That's kinda scary.

Aishwarya said...

This is mind boggling. I agree with Colleen, though, that the framing of the question had a lot to do with it.

narayan said...

Easy for you to say!
Amardeep : Another quibble, a la SALA. What the heck is AP? An acronym dictionary gives 223 interpretations, none of which tickle my funny bone. I can't respond to your post until I know. Please tell.

David Raphael Israel said...

"AP" means "advanced placement." (In context, it means American high school kids taking such a test, can -- if they show particular competency -- skip a basic-level first year college English course . . . or something roughly like that.)

One might feel slightly challenged by the exercise for lack of knowing the publication date of Desai's novel -- although even if a recent work, the Arun character could still have made this excursion of his long ago.

A "close reading" is sought -- on account of which, leaps of imagination noted by the grader are essayed. Ah well. Reading this at any rate reminds how likable Anita Desai's prose is . . . subtlety and understatement, sensibility by increments.


Anonymous said...

... and all these students are the supposedly elite ones ... Imagine the effect of an "Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom" on a normal American. Being an Indian, gives me creeps to think of it!

David Raphael Israel said...

No no, Anon, it's Indiana Jones (not Indian Jones); -- which [in pop American English] involves a more definite, clear distinction than, say, the academic, nominal difference [in Hindi/Sanskrit] between Ram and Rama.


narayan said...

Colleen :
When I read your post I was incensed, self righteously so. A week later, I am not as sure about my feelings. A cautionary tale :
Say you fell in love with India, visited several times, was taken in by a family, learned a language well enough to read and communicate, became a fan of the music, pursued its culture and literature ... Say you attempted to correct someone about a misconception, occasioned by a cursory reading of a dated article on the Internet, and were told, who the heck are you to lecture me? See my regrettable exchange with Vikram about Brazil on Sepia Mutiny.
Granted your attempts at educating people might be gentler and more professional than mine, even so, cultural arrogance is inbred in people and impossible to dislodge. We Indians are no slouches at denigrating the other either, and often worse than Americans. It's a pity Indian writers have yet to mine the concept of the Ugly Indian; fatwas might follow! I wish you luck in your endeavours.
Amardeep :
Multiple whammies for me. Having gone to school at UMass, I know Lake Wyola and the biting flies of its surrounding jungles, and can sympathise with Arun. The excerpt itself says little to me about the relationships between the characters but does invoke powerful memories of similar encounters with America. Taken out of context and without the giveaway of "Indian writer" it might have been about any other urbanized deracinated foreign student. It certainly should not have provoked ideas about vegetation and modernization of India. Desai, three decades after her apprenticeship, has earned the right to be abstruse in conveying her narrative vision - sophomoric readers be damned.
And who's to blame for the perpetuation of the jejune term "exchange student"? That myth should have been buried with Eisenhower. It reminds me of a time when foreign students would invariably be asked at the end of an initial conversation, "and when will you be returning to your country?".

Joanna said...

I think the silliness of some test-taker's comments may have as much to do with the context in which they are writing as with any reaction they might otherwise form to the passage at hand. I remember taking AP tests as high-school senior. I remember feeling contemptous of standardized tests and taking a dim view of test-graders when I was seventeen. The kids answering the questions are probably pretty bored, pressured by the time constraint, and itching to get out of there. If you're taking one of these tests and you realize you've written something that puts you on a logical path to stupid, you don't have time to go back and reevaluate and revise; you just push ahead, advancing stupid claims according to the proscribed AP essay formula. After every AP test, my classmates would always laugh about all the bull they wrote-- stuff that they'd never write in an essay for class-- and we mostly got 4s and 5s on our tests. Standardized tests just bring out the stupid in everybody, on every topic.

Postillion said...

It strikes me that high schoolers, like any other subsect of American population now, would reveal a good deal of how Americans understand the world, even if such an understanding of American society now is based on one anecdote. It is not surprising that high schoolers tend to know so little about India at a time when Americans are being discouraged from knowing facts about other countries. Instead, we are being encouraged to imbibe propaganda and fear of other cultures since this makes it easier to justify a war.

At the same time, I would note that since New Criticism, American students have not been taught as much of literature from other countries as they should be. Instead, so much of the focus has been about American and British literature (particularly Irish and English lit) that students have not gained the ability to think about perspective in a way that might help them relate to what it's like to be in a foreign country. This seems an odd disservice to students, particularly given America's own immigration history.

On another note, I just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed reading this blog posting as well as other parts of your blog.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I'm surprised by the student responses… but to make another generalization a lot of Americans don’t have a global perspective, nor do they wish to gain one.

Pinku said...

should I laugh at their ignorance or shall I pity them for thinking that all thats american is great and therefore to be revered especially by the outsider given a chance to visit this modern day mecca?

Sadly when I think through many of our students would also have such wild assumptions to make about another country...even Pakistan which is a neighbour then who are we to judge?

Natalie said...

I would say, as a student taking AP English this year, it's unfair of anyone to judge us as a whole. Many students, and adults alike, from all countries are ignorant to the rest of the world. That's not how things should be, but it's how they are. I'd suggest, especially those adults who are supposedly pitying the ignorance of american students, you lead the way and open a book yourself. Especially seeing as 1/3 of adults never read a book after high school. We work unbelievably hard, having 4 sometimes 5 hours of work a night, and often times the pressure gets to us and we say stupid things, or we don't know the answer to a question so we make something up. I find it offensive that anyone can generalize Americans as not wanting a global perspective, that is true ignorance and prejudice.

Anonymous said...

I am Indian and although some of the things listed in your thoughts are correct, I think it is slightly radical and unjust to assume that "The women would have to walk behind the men and they would trip over their veils!". Also, the sentence "Indian people who are mostly Muslim spend their time worshipping cows" is EXTREMELY offensive because it seems insulting when you say Indians spend most of their time "worshipping cows". It seems as if you are degrading the God we worship.