Reaction Papers for Literature of Laughter:
Threat or Menace or What?

Reaction Papers - So What's the Deal, Anyway?

As you have been told, you are to write seven reaction papers for this class. If you think that's simply ridiculous and excessive (especially in light of all the other things required for this undergraduate course), just remember that you were also told that you were welcome to sign up for other classes instead of this one. Feel better? Me neither. But the real point of these exercises - which have a value of up to four points each ­p; is to assist you to demonstrate your understanding of ("DYUO") the assigned materials. You simply have to read everything assigned in this class. Helping you keep up with Current Events (as it were) in this class is just an unavoidable part of me doing my job.

It is by my admittedly nefarious design - you will surely be honked-off to learn - I do not have a specific set of "if-then" statements available which tell you how to get a full four points for your reaction paper efforts. However, you will certainly find it helpful to know what makes a reaction paper a good one. I'll elaborate a bit:

Please note that to get into the realm of the 3- and 4-pointers you are expected to go beyond mere "reporting" (as an English 112 summary paper might); if in fact you go beyond even "synthesizing" (in the English 112 sense) and into real "interpretation," you're really getting somewhere when you can demonstrate not just an understanding (i.e., comprehension as a sentient being) of the material but a genuine apprehension and appreciation of how the material fits into the larger cultural picture (even, perhaps especially, if you don't much care for the source text). Four-pointers, by the bye, may be kind of rare.

Fair Warning #1: Again, You Have To Read Everything Assigned. Plain-and-Simple: if it shows that you've been slacking, expect to be down-graded.

Fair Warning #2: Neatness Counts. That is, conceptual neatness (in terms of your rhetorical arguments), as well as your spelling and grammar/mechanics/etc., and just plain readability do count in this class (type/wordprocess well). Hey, this is English; your Mother Tongue. You're supposed to already know this before you come in here, so I'll not elaborate.

Naturally Nutty Nebulous Notions for Reaction Papers

(You are not to consider yourself bound to/by these; they're just "kickstart" questions
only for when you find yourself staring at a blank page/screen for too long. Best to use them as "prewriting" [remember that from your composition classes?] before composing and submitting final drafts of the Real Thing)

An Example of a (Really) Bad Reaction Paper

(Note: all errors are from the original - this was an actual submission)

The main difference between the Spalding Gray's story "Terrors of Pleasure: The House" and the video of Spalding Gray telling the story was that the later was more funny. I enjoyed the video better because of the way Spalding Gray told the story, all the expression and energy he put into it made it come to life. Also, the objects he used to make his point was very funny. But, there are also many differences in the dialogue of the two. The first place I noticed a difference was when the man real estate agent was showing Spalding the house with the family. In writing it said the real estate agent said the owner's daughter needed some sort of operation, but on the video he says she needed a kidney transplant. The names of the man who owns the Adirondack-style cabin are not the same, in the writing his name was Carlo Carbone + on the show Spalding said his name was Johnny something (I can't remember). When Carlo or Johnny is telling Spalding about his life story, on the video Carlo says "Can you picture me, living in a storefront in Queens" + Spalding says "I just met the guy!", it isn't in the written story. When Spalding is questioning him about the house Spalding asks many things, in the video he has a quick answer, but they aren't in the other. Also, in the video Spalding didn't tell about how he had the owners lawyer hold some money until he gets the foundation fixes for Spalding. The phone message from the owner on Renée's answering machine seemed to be longer than that in the writter story. Spalding doesn't tell us about the first person, the mad man, he meets downtown in the video. Another funny part that wasn't in the reading was how Spalding woke up each morning in his new house + would yell something different, like "It's chimney day!". Spalding also went into much more detail about the books he read while in his new home. On the video he didn't tell about his friend George Coates visiting, or the money blowing in circles. On the show he didn't tell about the lore he could've had in a new sitcom. "Hail to the Chief", then he turned down because it was a 6-year contract. In the written story he never tell us if he gets the part in "St. Elsewhere", + the video doesn't mention his audition for "Mr. Sunshine". Also in the video he says that in "Leftover life to kill, he would star opposite (some actress) but in the story it says, Sandy Struggles. And the most important. . . .

And so on and on. Beside the obvious problems with this as an essay qua essay (e.g., clarity and focus of thesis, paragraphing, the various transitions [hardy-har], sentence structure, unclear words and sentences, misspellings and homonym problems, and gross punctuation errors), it is not a reaction paper as we're to come to learn it. While it does attempt to demonstrate - kind of - that the writer at least both read Gray's essay and saw his video, it does not by any imaginative stretch concern the writer's understanding of "self-positioning" on the material. In other words, a good computer application ("Travesty," for example) could've generated this - with far fewer grammatical and spelling errors. The four-hundred forty two words this scholar (a junior, as I recall) submitted actually say precious little. That is, while it shows that the writer did look at a few of the nuts-and-bolts of both the projects, it does not establish any form of understanding as to how the whole machine might work. And that, boys and girls, is where our interest lies.

Speaking of interest - if you're interested - I was still fairly generous with this essay. It got one point out of four.

So you might just ask yourself: If I submit something this stupid, might good professor Dowell some day use it as an (anonymous) example of what not to do? The answer, gentle friends, is ABSOLUTELY.

An Example of a Fairly Good Reaction Paper

ENG 200, Literature of Laughter
R. L. McC
September 16, 1994
A Nacireman Life Enhancement Ritual

In the nearly forty years since the publication of Horace Miner's enlightening essay concerning the peculiar body purification rituals of the Nacirema people of the central North American continent, much research has been done into the nature of their magic-centered culture. This research has revealed that the overwhelming pessimism of the Nacirema people goes well beyond their feelings of distaste towards their own bodies. Indeed, to the Nacirema, their very existences are by nature much more difficult than their minds and bodies could possibly endure for the span of an average lifetime. For this reason, the shamans of these people have developed many intriguing trinkets and magical devices to aid the helpless people in the supposed betterment of their lives.

Central to Nacirema culture is communication with others as a way of coping with one's tedious existence. In the time since Miner's research, however, the lifestyle of the average Nacirema adult has become increasingly specialized and soloistic. In order to cope with the resulting isolation, manipulation of traditional Nacirema talking can has grown exponentially over the past few decades. The talking can is a peculiar device composed of two interlocking fetishes resembling bent ivory cylinders or cans roughly ten inches in length joined by a stylized flexible spiral of cord or rope made to resemble a long vine. The entire apparatus is tethered by a similar cable to a wall, usually within a sitting room of the abode and often in the work dwelling. In order to relieve frustration from extended solitude, the Nacireman picks up the uppermost fetish and holds it to the side of his or her head. One at a time, in a mysterious magical sequence, s/he touches several polished stones set into one or the other of the talking cans. S/he waits a few seconds, then appears to hear and respond to voices mystically coming from within the can. When s/he has sufficiently diverted him/herself from her/his taxing and difficult life within the work dwelling, s/he returns the upper can to its position on the lower one and returns to brooding and complaining. As mystical as the talking cans may seem to the layman, with further analysis they appear as nothing more than primitive trinkets. In fact, when one of the research staff built enough of a rapport with the Nacirema to be invited to partake of the talking can ritual, she heard nothing but a series of diatonic musical pulses emanating from the upper cylinder.

The cans have become so central to the Nacireman way of life that the more well-to-do Nacireman now often employs a listening box to mystically record the haunting voices emanating from the talking cans. Apparently, the voices become very impatient when not allowed to speak, as evidenced by their loud screaming and bell ringing at such times. The listening box is endowed with the power to respond to the cries of the talking cans in lieu of the Nacireman, and to listen and record the scorned voice. At such time as the owner of the listening box stops worrying about her difficult existence long enough to speak to the spirit voices, she summons the voices into thin air through some sort of elaborate ventriloquism. She is then required to listen to the voice and to use the talking cans to speak to it as soon as possible. Failure to acknowledge the missed oration from within the listening box often results in a long and increasingly hostile chain of messages recorded on the box by the shunned voice.

To the untrained observer, the Nacirema may appear to have an undying affection for magical gadgets. The experienced anthropologist, however, sees the darker truth behind the gadgetry. The Nacirema are so in need of social interaction within their bleak and tedious lives that they have resorted to acting out elaborate conversations with inanimate magical objects to obtain the needed companionship. Many Nacirema, in fact, have performed the talking cans and listening box rituals so many times that they openly profess a kind of hatred or contempt for the devices. These rituals, however, have become so firmly implanted in the daily routine of the Nacirema that even those who claim abhorrence of the devices cannot imagine life without them. Perhaps, then, it is this strange addiction which fuels the peculiar pessimism of these unfortunate, magic-saturated people.

Uh, see the difference? Again: if you can't, please drop this course now! This essay got four out of four points. [FOOTNOTE 1 - footnotes are at the bottom]

Three Verbs Which Are Ultimately Required From You Regarding Acceptable Reaction Papers

1. read ("REED," verb)

i. To comprehend the meaning of (written or printed words or symbols).
ii. To determine the intent or mood of.
iii. To derive a special meaning from or give a special significance to.
iv. To perceive, receive, or comprehend.
v. To study.
vi. To learn by reading.

2. think ("THiNGK," verb)

i. To have as a thought; formulate in the mind.
ii. To ponder.
iii. To reason.
iv. To visualize; imagine.
v. To devise or invent.
vi. To consider.

3. write ("RITE," verb)

i. To form (letters, symbols, or characters) on a surface with an implement such as a pen or pencil [or typewriter/wordprocessor].
ii. To compose and set down, especially in musical or literary form.
iii. To relate or communicate by writing. [FN 2]

Three verbs; action words. If that came off as rather condescending to you, I apologize. But it's exactly what it purports to be by the heading.

Why I Don't Accept Late Reaction Papers

It's really very simple. Reaction papers are late for only two reasons: either the writer has a legitimate and reasonable excuse of dreadful circumstances outside of her/his control (e.g., an accident or serious illness of some sort involving the writer or a close relative) or the writer utterly screwed up (e.g., got too lazy/drunk/otherwise stupid and forgot when it was due). I'm going to let you in on a dark little secret; I'm going to whisper, so come closer and listen very carefully. . . .

Most instructors love to hear their students' weird, whining, implausible/ impossible little stories of white-lies, half-truths, and whole-cloth bull doody about three grandparents dying last week and brothers who are suddenly serving hard time and pregnant sisters with flat tires and all that jazz. We're especially delighted to watch y'all sweat out the real whoppers. Hooty-hoot!

The Germans (gosh love 'em) even have a lovely-sounding word for it: schadenfreude. [FN 3] However, I'm rather intolerant of students who just flat-out try to jerk me around. While I encourage open-minded discussion in this class and I like to keep the mood fairly light (while it's largely dark laughter we're studying), you do not want to honk me (or any other instructor) off with lame or apocryphal excuses.

Now I'm going to let you in on another little secret: I'm not a creep about genuine excuses (the first kind - those which concern truly dire circumstances over which you have no control) for not turning in reaction papers. Things do come up from time to time. Get with me JUST AS SOON AS POSSIBLE to work out an alternate assignment.

Fair Warning #3: This works only once per student per semester!

However, remember that if you have, say, a doctor's appointment or a sporting event during our class time and you know about it at least one day in advance (as all doctors and sporting directors do give advance notice), you're expected to have a group member turn your paper in for you on time. I can - and often DO - check on these things. Or you can turn your paper in to my English Department mailbox, located in 202C University Hall - between the English Dep't Office and the stairwell, before class. OR you can e-mail it! But the proverbial Bottom Line is that you're responsible for your work getting to me on time, period, full-stop, everybody out of the pool, game over, hasta-la-vista, baby.

Fair Warning #4: Give yourself time to do good work. I can smell a writer-based, hastily-written, prewriting-ish, rough-drafty attempt at a reaction paper from about a quarter-mile away. Remember: I've been teaching composition for over five years now. What you turn in will be considered Final Drafts (fully-formed and free of error). I strongly recommend that everyone go to the Writing Lab at least once this semester. It's not a punishment! It's a good thing and a very good habit to establish early in your career as a scholar.

[1] If you disagree and think the essay kinda somehow makes sense to you and I'm just being an overly-picky bastard: PLEASE DROP THIS COURSE NOW!! [back]

[2] Source: American Heritage Electronic Dictionary (AHED), v 1.0, © 1990 Houghton-Mifflin Company. Plus, I fiddled with it a bit. [back]

[3] It actually refers to taking pleasure in the pain of others; I understand that such a single term exists in no other language. While there might well be some instructors out there who actually enjoy hearing of truly dead grandparents and stuff - I'm not one of them, though I think I had a few such instructors as a graduate student - what I mean here is that it's really great secret fun to watch students do the little eye-avoiding seat-shuffle we like to call the Fibbers' Squirm. [back]