A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

The Bourne Identity: The Best Action Flick There Is

This is my example for the best movie ever essay my sophomores are working on. I have invited them to argue what they think is the best, but clearly I’m a biased reader. I posted this essay as a Google Doc with comments pointing out to students what I was doing.

In a dark theater, in an intense moment of  The Bourne Identity, my mother-in-law clutched her popcorn in a death grip. A man was sneaking behind the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, and it was not clear whether Bourne was aware of his presence. Unable to watch him die, my mother-in-law broke down the fourth wall and called to Jason: “Watch out behind you!” The moment created one of the great memories of our family’s history added one more anecdote proving that The Bourne Identity is the greatest action movie ever made.

Part of what makes The Bourne Identity so  good is the way it is full of regular people doing amazing things. While Matt Damon has immortalized the role, Brad Pitt was actually offered it first but turned it down because he was busy with other films  (“Bourne Identity Trivia”). This was good for the film because Pitt, while a great actor, would not have brought the same Everyman sense that Damon brings to a role. With Damon, viewers are able to believe (for a couple hours anyway) he is a normal guy who is surprised to discover he’s a trained assassin. But the sense of regular people carries into the other characters.  Critic David Edelstein argues that Marie, the innocent bystander who gets wrapped into Bourne’s adventures, “seems to be having the time of her life,” which is precisely what the viewer is doing even as they imagine themselves in her place. It is the juxtaposition of these normal-seeming people with extraordinary situations that creates excitement a viewer can imagine being a part of.

Yet while the everydayness of the characters adds a sense of believability, one could definitely argue that Bourne’s amnesia, which continues throughout the film, is hardly realistic. Bourne doesn’t know who he is but he knows everything he’s ever learned about being a modern spy and soldier. Would a person’s memory really work like that? This is part of what critic J. Hoberman is getting at when he describes t he “general superfluity” of the film. But while this rejection of the amnesia’s premise has validity , it does not necessarily follow that the amnesia ruins the film. With the height of the excitement in The Bourne Identity, who cares whether there are any cited cases of this kind of amnesia? Viewers are given the key quandary with an immediate  inciting moment, as wonder with Bourne himself why he is floating on the sea with bullets in his back. From there the movie never relents, piling mysterious complication upon mysterious complication, withholding the climax until the last moments of the movie. With such nonstop intensity, critic David Edelstein claims, “it doesn’t give you time to reflect on the inanit y . . . of its premise.” It moves so fast, in fact, that viewers are likely to miss even fundamental mistakes. In the opening scene, when the fisherman cuts open Bourne’s wetsuit to reveal his bullet wounds, Bourne is wearing only the wetsuit (as is normal). Yet for the first half of the film following the boat-scene, Bourne wears a sweater with b ullet holes in the back–a preposterous situation since he was not wearing the sweater when he was shot (“Bourne Identity Goofs”). Does a viewer mind such things? No, because the pace of film’s action is so quick few of them will even notice such basic mistakes.

Not that the film is full of such mistakes; in fact, the film’s flawless and creative chase scenes are what sets it so far apart from other action movies. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Jason Bourne escapes from the United States embassy in Switzerland. The  paradox of a man escaping from such a highly secure building (dozens of Marines are sprinting to catch him the entire time), single-handedly and without running or looking stressed, creates a thrill. And the directors have made sure nothing interferes with the thrill. For example, to ease the feelings of any conflicted viewers who would not want to see innocent American soldiers or security guards harmed, Bourne never kills any of them, only knocking them cold and leaving them behind. Thus, part of what works in this film is it “summons up a thriller era when the only people who ever seemed to die were spies, counterspies, and the odd, overweening dictato r” (Edelstein). In fact, by the time the movie ends,  only eight people die (“Bourne Identity Trivia”), showing blood and gore is not the essential ingredient to a great action film.

W ith such creative action occuring at such an intense pace to seemingly regular people, The Bourne Identity succeeds as no other action movie has. My m other-in-law might have enjoyed worrying over Jason Bourne’s safety, but she need not have. His spot as the ultimate action hero is still secure.



Dostoevsky’s passion and conviction as something we do not permit ourselves

The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we–here, today–cannot or do not permit ourselves. Joseph Frank does an admirable job of tracing out the interplay of factors that made this engagement possible–FMD’s own beliefs and talents, the ideological and aesthetic climates of his day, etc. Upon his finishing Frank’s books, though, I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.

– David Foster Wallace, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” published 22 years ago. Does it still hold true? I’m not well-read enough to say, but work like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad doesn’t strike me as falling into this description.



Crime and Punishment, for ‘this moment’

Shortly after pulling Crime and Punishment off my shelf John Wilson recommended the book to someone else on Twitter, stating, “I’d vote for Crime & Punishment at this moment.” While I’d also thought about “this moment” a bit in choosing it, I’d mostly been looking for an excuse to revisit a book I’d loved twenty years ago. In my reading, though, I realized how right Wilson was. Here is one of  Raskolnikov’s attempts to explain why he killed:

I kept asking myself then: am I so stupid that, if others are stupid and I know for certain they’re stupid, I myself don’t want to be smarter? Then I learned, Sonya, that if one waits for everyone to become smarter, it will take too long . . . And then I also learned that it will never happen, that people will never change, and no one can remake them, and it’s not worth the effort! Yes, it’s true! It’s their law . . . A law, Sonya! It’s true! . . . And I know now, Sonya, that he who is firm and strong in mind and spirit will rule over them! He who dares much will be right in their eyes. He who can spit on what is greatest will be their lawgiver, and he who dares the most will be the rightest of all! Thus it has been until now, and thus it will always be. Only a blind man can fail to see it!

Then I realized, Sonya, that power is given only to the one who dares to reach down and take it. Here there is one thing, one thing only: one has only to dare! And then a thought took shape in me, for the first time in my life, one that nobody had ever thought before me! Nobody! It suddenly came to me as bright as the sun: how is it that no man before now has dared or dares yet, while passing by all this absurdity, quite simply to take the whole thing by the tail and whisk it off to the devil! I . . . I wanted to dare, and I killed . . . I just wanted to dare, Sonya, that’s the whole reason!

Using Serial (season 1) to teach journalism

I am not a great journalism teacher. I’ve been teaching the class for four years (it’s a semester long writing class for seniors) and have altered my approach drastically in many ways, experimenting with our working time, with what I ask of students and how I motivate them, with the direction of my lessons. This year I wanted to improve their grasp of investigative journalism, to help them see what it is, both how hard it is and what is really going on with it. In truth, I have struggled to spark students’ interest in journalism, in its relevance, and since I see investigative reporting as the most exciting part of journalism (real change brought about from diligent reporting, the whole watchdog for a Democratic Society ideal) I thought emphasizing this area might be the best way to spark interest and build the relevance of the whole enterprise.

So this year we listened to season one of Serial, the wildly popular 2014 podcast. We listened in class, which we can do because our school uses a block schedule (95 minute classes), and I asked students to answer particular questions about each episode. After listening we continued working on our regular news stories for the school paper.

I thought our listening to it might show us a good example of investigative journalism but also lend us a view inside the process, what goes into putting all this together, because Sarah Koenig is so conversational and open about what she is trying to do and how she does it.

We finished the last episode today, and I am on the fence about its worth.

That was a lot of class time. Early on it felt completely worth it, but somewhere around episode nine I began to wonder whether I’d do this again. The episodes vary in length but generally run 40 to 50 minutes. With 12 episodes, that’s a lot of class time to give to this project (at least nine hours).

But then again, I have taught this class for years and know that what I had been doing with that time was not working. I was continually disappointed with the results of my instruction. The content was good, but somehow it never hooked my seniors, whose minds were set more on completing their high school careers than the nuances of clutter in their prose. No matter how good the lessons’ content was, if the students didn’t learn them, they weren’t good. So did Serial lead to greater net learning?

I am happy with students’ responses to my questions about each episode. They were thoughtful and insightful. They were clearly listening (no napping, no playing on their phones). They were developing their own opinions. They were understanding what Koenig was doing as a storyteller when I asked them to consider her methods. And they were ready to riot when one person affirmed Adnan should have been convicted (they voted 17-1 to acquit him, not believing he was innocent so much as not sure he was guilty).

All the students said they thought it was worth the time we spent on it. One qualified her comments a tad, recognizing that we spent twelve class periods on it and I might not want to do that again, but she still voted for it. Another student told me, “It helped with how I view journalism,” which is encouraging, though it’s possible I primed her for that kind of feedback, as I had asked them what they learned about journalism and whether I should do it again.

Likely the key measure of the experience will be how students respond in their own work, their own journalism. Their big project for the quarter is to write their own investigative piece. The results from past classes have been mixed (many students have passed off basic news reports as investigative pieces), so if this group writes a series of truly investigative reports, I would be encouraged. But I also have to admit that such results can depend as much on the topics students discover as on their understanding of the skills. If I can suggest a number of great ideas, students will seize them and frequently write good stories, but if I can’t think of enough topics, a dearth of interesting stories may result.

I have done worse things than this Serial unit–though nothing as long–so I’m not scared to try it again. While students enjoyed it, I’m not particularly confident in its place and am definitely fishing for other ideas. If I come across one, I will be content to toss Serial back into the pond.

Enjoying the person who tells you that what you do is wrong

Bryan Garner writes in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, “Footnotes are generally an excellent place for citations. But textual footnotes–those that contain substantive discussion–ought to be kept to a minimum.” I find this comment particularly wonderful, as I am leafing through Garner’s book on David Foster Wallace’s recommendation.  In “Authority and American Usage” (a 57 page review), Wallace’s objections to elements of ADMAU run one paragraph and can be summarized in one sentence: “Except for the VOGUE WORDS snafu and the absence of a pronunciation entry on trough, the above were pretty much the only quibbles this reviewer could find.”¹

So Wallace, the world’s greatest virtuoso of footnotes with “substantive discussion,” did not quibble with Garner’s estimate about their use. This is likely because Wallace was not claiming to agree with everything Garner says but that it was all done well. Near the end of Wallace’s essay (in a footnote), he admits he disagrees with Garner’s use of a particular comma before a conjunction (there was no independent clause in tow!) and asserts, “But respectful disagreement between people of goodwill is of course Democratically natural and healthy and, when you come right down to it, kind of fun.” I imagine Wallace found Garner’s comments about footnotes interesting and astute even if he was totally unwilling to apply them to himself.

This morning strikes me as a good time to approach such disagreements with the same kind of spirit.


  1. That pronunciation entry complaint isn’t even a complaint. It’s a joke with the punchline in the footnote.

DFW on college writers’ most common error: self-absorption

As rhetoric, this sort of attitude works only in sermons to the choir, and as pedagogy it’s disastrous, and in terms of teaching writing it’s especially bad because it commits precisely the error that most Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making–the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn. This kind of mistake results more from a habit of mind than from any particular false premise–it is a function not of fallacy or ignorance but of self-absorption. It also happens to be the most persistent and damaging error that most college writers make, and one so deeply rooted that it often takes several essays and conferences and revisions to get them to even see what the problem is. Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind–anything that you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue–your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for.

Because (1) and (2) seem so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (“This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree”) and something that the writer merely opines (“My reasons for recommending this are as follows:”). These sorts of requirements are, of course, also the elements of a Democratic Spirit. I therefore submit that the hoary cliche “Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think” sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it. (106, FN 59)

Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Little, Brown, 2006.

Missing the Point of the Flux Capacitor

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

In 1982, 406 of 415 voters selected Hank Aaron to be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That made Aaron a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but as the career home run leader at the time (he hit 755 home runs), one wonders how or why nine voters did not select him. Truly, you can’t please everyone.  Which is exactly what I thought when reading Sheila Benson’s 1985 review of Back to the Future for the Los Angeles Times (‘An Underpowered Trip Back to the Future’). The film’s score at Rotten Tomatoes is just under Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame voting percentage (96% compared to 97.8%), but Benson thinks it is “big, cartoonish and empty,” showing she missed the point entirely.

For Benson, the film’s premise is good but the execution lacks nuance. She chastises Michael J. Fox’s performance as “dangerously low on subtlety,” thinks Marty McFly’s mother having the hots for Marty has “a faintly rancid taste,” and complains that “an all-black band could never have played a small-town high school dance in 1955.”  Most importantly, Benson believes that when it comes to the plot and Marty McFly’s attempts to return to 1985, “there is, unfortunately, never a second’s doubt that he’ll manage any of these feats.” Essentially, then, Benson is upset over what she deems the unreality of the fun.

By focusing on the reality of the film, though, Ms. Benson completely misses its goals, holding it to standards it never sets for itself. In watching Back to the Future dozens of times (no hyperbole used), I have never once wondered whether Marty McFly would accomplish any of his tasks. Instead, I have always delighted in how he accomplishes them. I have never stopped to wonder whether it is possible to drive a car at 88 mph and hit a wire at the precise moment a bolt of lightning charges it, or whether a man can dangle off a clock face and catch a heavy cable by his wool trousers, or how a 50 year old man can still be 50 years old 30 years later. Instead, I have gloried in watching Doc Brown prevent Marty from being erased from existence. Similarly, I have never been foolish enough to view the film’s 1955 setting as historical artifact. McFly journeys not to the real 1955 America but to an idealized stereotype of it—where every building houses a successful business, where kids play in the town square, and where black Americans are on the verge of breaking free from their historic mistreatment. It’s intentional nonsense, which is why its not being the real 1955 never bothers 96% of viewers, and why Marty McFly’s not being subtle is not the point (Did she notice Doc Brown? The director was clearly not chasing subtlety). The point is that Marty is witty and spunky and fun. And that Doc is brilliant and loyal and significantly off-kilter. And that they’re both easy to root for. Amidst all that, we don’t imagine Marty will be stuck forever, we just wonder how he’ll work his way out.

In this 1985 review, Shelia Benson admits that for her the film contained early promise, and she hoped it might be “another ‘Buckaroo Bonzai.’” This, unfortunately for Benson, reveals precisely how off her calculations were. Though I grew up in the 1980s, I had to google Buckaroo Bonzai to know what it was (a sci-fi film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, released in 1984). But Back to the Future? Oh, I think we all know what that is, just like all baseball fans know who Hank Aaron is: one of the all-time greats.