Crossing out the apostrophes with a blue crayon

13th February 2004 at 00:00
You know that scene from the documentary film Etre et Avoir where little Jojo doesn't really want to finish his colouring-in picture with his blue crayon? He jiggles up and down. He drops his crayon. He goes to the loo. He returns to his desk and gazes out the window.

He thinks up all sorts of excuses as to why the task can't be completed, finally confiding the real problem to his teacher: "There's a bee in the room and it's looking at me."

The documentary may be set in a rural French school, and Jojo just a baby, but don't you identify with him and his long-suffering teacher? On the one hand, trying to get some learners to concentrate long enough to complete a task can drive you quietly insane. You start off supportive and sympathetic, develop an air of brisk no-nonsense authority and then collapse into weary fatigue and decide to become task-oriented - which usually means hissing: "Just get it done!"

On the other hand, I admit I am just as guilty as Jojo in the blue crayon areas of my life and just as creative with excuses.

Motivating students in the blue crayon areas of the curriculum takes huge amounts of energy. I sometimes think that my teaching timetable is the only one in the college with large swathes of the blue crayon stuff. Take editing and proofreading. If you are not careful you can end up with a whole roomful of Jojos, stunned into inactivity by bees.

So you try to turn it into "Fun with editing and proofreading". During one session we listened to a taped monologue. "Melon's 69p" offers the confessions of a feisty punctuation vigilante who patrols Edinburgh and zaps apostrophes from greengrocers' signs. Melon's, potato's and tomato's all get the treatment.

She finally borrows a ladder, buys a pot of paint and a brush and clears up the problem in the shop sign "Miller and Son's". The class were mildly amused but didn't seem to empathise with the character's obsession.

At the next meeting of "Fun with editing and proofreading", I decided to tell them the joke that gives Lynne Truss's best-seller Eats, Shoots amp; Leaves its title. "Have you heard the one about the panda?" I asked cheerfully.

The learner in the corner looked uneasy but I carried on and his expression cleared to one of relief. He nodded. "Yeah, I've heard it - only I heard the dirty version."

At least picking out stray apostrophes gets you back on safer ground.

Halfway through the formative assessment, there was a big sigh from the corner. "You mean people actually do this all day for a living?" But not everyone was so dismayed. Some of the learners were getting a kick out of finding all the errors. Well, two of them were.

"Fun with editing and proofreading" is paying off. Some are already hooked, destined to become proofreading vigilantes. They will shortly renounce reliance on spellcheckers. There will be others, however, who will continue to bow to decisions made by a machine. Only today I discovered in an essay that alcohol and drug abuse can affect cowardice nation. Maybe that's how the phrase Dutch courage was born.

I admit I find proofreading terribly satisfying. What's worse, my son gave me a copy of Truss's book for Christmas, clearly realising how much I would appreciate a fellow pedant. If there are errors in this piece, obviously it's the sub-editor's fault and not mine. Pass me that blue crayon. There's a little bit here I haven't quite finished colouring in.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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