Dec 17

The exam fun continues…

Posted by A Writer


 

…and so regular posts will resume tomorrow.  Until then, I leave you with my current favorite search string for this site: 

beowolf grendel hot mother jolie

When a search string sounds like a spam comment, you know you're on to something.  Wink

Dec 14

Here there be dragons.

Posted by A Writer

As someone new to the "art" of blogging, I still have a lot to learn.  For instance: how to properly encourage discussion on or off site.  I posted a link to yesterday's post about the job market column from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the Chronicle's online message board.  Seemed logical: my post was about a Chronicle article; perhaps people reading the Chronicle might be interested in seeing it.  So I titled the post "The Job Market Horror Story" and posted this, verbatim:

I enjoyed this column, but wondered a little if it isn't indicative of a larger issue in higher education relating to what we tell graduate students about the job search and why.  The full article is on my site, http://www.rewrittenreality.com; feedback there or here would be welcome.

     Real Writer

Whoops. 

Apparently my writing was utterly confusing, because I soon got this gem in response:

wow… you enjoyed an article that you wrote.

You're SUCH a REAL writer!

Besides taking offense at my nickname, which he/she had apparently viewed as arrogant (and not related to the website, from which this name obviously comes), the poster had evidently thought I was referring to enjoying my post–not the article to which the post refers.  Given that this was the Discuss Chronicle Articles forum I would have thought that distinction to be obvious, but I was clearly wrong in that assumption.  I quickly posted a clarification (with a comment about the tone of the reply seeming inappropriate while I was at it), but the damage was already done.  I got things like this:

A failure in clarity is usually grounds for snarkasm around here.

And this:

I think he plagiarized the forum.  Without attribution.

And this:

So it is a piss-poor plagiarism as well?

And my favorite:

MY NAME IS REALWRITE AND I AM A REALWRITER AND I HAVE A BLOG PLEASE COME VISIT MY BLOG YOU WILL LIKE IT BECAUSE I AM A REALWRITER.

Yes, I had gone from an well-meaning attempt to get a discussion going and encourage people to check out my post on this site to a Nigerian E-mail scam, all in less than eight hours.  For the academic world, that's actually blazing speed.  So I changed my name to "A Writer" (and on reflection have changed it here as well), asked that the thread be deleted, and won't come within a mile of the place again.  

But the whole unpleasant experience was useful, because I've learned two very important lessons:

1.  Academics quickly become defensive (or "snarky," which in the real world means "acting like a jerk") when they feel their territory is being threatened.  I already knew this to be the case in the real world; I hadn't translated it to the online universe.  Online, academics quickly become defensive when "the new guy" comes into their forum and starts posting without asking the higher-ups politely.  My fault for not making the connection sooner; next time I'll follow the "chain of command."  Undecided

2.  People really, really, really hate anything that refers to any other site besides the one they're on.  Really.  Apparently the spam problem has become so widespread that anyone posting on a message board, forum or comment section with a suggestion to visit another site is automatically the online equivalent of a used car salesman and needs to be slapped down, and hard.  I'm kind of troubled that some people can't seem to make distinctions between legitimate comments and ones which are obviously just trolling (civility and mutual respect seem to be in awfully short supply over there if this overreaction is any indication), but it's good to know the lay of the land nonetheless.

So I've learned my lesson.  Readers, tread carefully: here there be dragons, and "snarky" ones at that.

Dec 13

                              

What I love about the above picture is that I didn't randomly discover it while surfing the Internet.  No, I actually typed in the words "Academic Job Search Convention Picture" into Google Image Search and this popped up, from no less a source than Johns Hopkins University (I don't screw around with no Podunk State Tech Community College, dog).  What is the hidden message behind the image?  Is this the view prospective job candidates wish to see, looking through the window to a larger world (complete with guard towers, I guess)?  Or is it what they are forced to see, locked as they are inside their squalid cells, hunched over their laptop screens with their rapidly cooling chais from Starbucks nearby as they pound out their definitive responses to the subjective unconscious, on the attack against the slings and arrows of that dinosaur Harold Bloom, excitedly reporting that there are in fact five diary entries from Charlotte Bronte's maid (a sadly underrepresented writer) and not, as was previously argued in the PMLA, four?

One can only ponder the picture's deeper meanings.  Either way, the fact that this is the impression about the academic job search with which JHU wants to leave you, or at least their graduate students, is I think pretty telling.  Why is all this on my mind?  Because I just got done reading another of the Chronicle of Higher Education's first person columns jucily entitled "The Job-Market Horror Story."  Of course I wanted to read it; I've been on the job market before, and who doesn't love a horror story (when it doesn't refer specifically to you)?  It starts promisingly enough; Otis Nixon (it's apparently a pseudonym, but I hope also a subtle reference to one of the weirder looking baseball players ever) is a newly minted Ph.D. in history searching for his first tenure track job at the American Historical Association's annual convention (much the same, I imagine, as the Modern Language Association's convention with which I'm more familiar).  He arrives at the interview room, goes up tentatively to the undergraduate-run check-in desk, sees the Interviewer (yes, he capitalizes the term) dressed in a hideous green sweater with another candidate, waits much longer than he needs to (the anticipation is building!), finally goes back to check on the Green Man only to discover (ahh, the guy with the axe is right behind that water fountain, you fool, turn around, I can't look!)…that he's left.  He finds him, though, and it turns out the Interviewer messed up the date, and they have their interview anyway, even though the guy doesn't get to an on-campus follow-up.  And that's pretty much it.

Er…

Well, that's not all of it; he also says this "experience has changed the way I view the hiring process," and that job seekers aren't allowed "to assert their individuality," and that he hopes to find out what the truth of the job search process is and what it isn't.  And that's it.  Really.  No discussions of how he went to the Interviewer's room only to find that the Interviewer was actually his father and in bed with his current girlfriend, also a candidate for a history job at the same school, or that the Interviewer turned out to be a informant for the mob who gave poor Otis a package just before the hit was in, or…well, anything really horrible.  Nope.  Just a guy wearing a really terrible neon green sweater with lousy appointment organizational skills.  That's the horror.

Jeez, where's the freaking serial killer in the cabin on the lake when you need him?

The truth is that Otis's story–not the substance of it, but the fact that he thought it was a story at all–is symptomatic of a much larger problem in higher education: what advanced graduate students are told, and not told, to expect from their job searches.  What they're told, as even Otis points out, is that interviews are cold, impersonal, and mean-spirited affairs (forget about getting a chai from these people!), that the job market is a hideous mess, that the process is absolutely arbitrary and whimsical, and that there are thousands, tens of thousands of people just like them whose sheer numbers will overwhelm and forever cover the unique characteristics of the lovable Otises of the world.  In other words, be afraid; be very, very afraid.  But there are two huge problems with this approach:

1.  What they have been told is mostly a lie.  Academic interviews are not necessarily cold and impersonal, or at least no more so than any other kind of interview.  Sometimes, in fact, they can be good experiences.  But if they aren't good experiences, and if your referring to how terrible a sweater your Interviewer is wearing isn't the reason they aren't good, that in itself is a valuable source of information: stay away from the place.  You're interviewing them as much as the reverse, and if they're not coming across well, that's a red flag to keep in mind.  And the oft-repeated claims that there are "too many Ph.D.s for the jobs available" are bald-faced, scurrilous, and just flat-out hideous lies.  Graduate programs are not producing too many Ph.D.s; the problem is that college administrations have realized that going for adjuncts over the full-time, tenure track positions is a "smart" financial investment, since you don't have to give adjuncts offices, benefits, money, or really any attention at all (so much more could be said about this, but I'll save it for another day).  This distinction matters because it means you, the advanced graduate student, are part of an unusual breed; there aren't many of "you" running around relative to the general population.  Your having gotten an advanced degree of any kind (hell, getting a degree period) is a significant accomplishment, and you have something significant to contribute.  Understanding that fact, and walking into an interview understanding it, makes it much more likely that you'll come across as confident and positive rather than desperate and bitter.  In other words, don't let the bastards get you down.  

2.  What they have not been told is that institutions are looking not just for impressive academic resumes, but impressive academic people.  People on hiring committees want someone they can imagine themselves sitting across the table from, even eating lunch with, five years from now.  I was hired by my institution because I had the right set of credentials and the right kind of research interests and teaching talent, sure…but almost everyone else in the pile of applicants from which I was chosen had the same or better characteristics.  But unlike them, my chairman told me, I seemed "real"; I played in a rock band, I read and wrote fiction, I actually liked (and could talk) sports.  I was, in other words, a real person.  What Otis decries as a lack of "individuality" in the job process is precisely the opposite of what I encountered, where I had to express who I was to let them know the person they were hiring. 

Now this "being yourself" mantra has limits; if you have terrible teaching skills, or would rather be caught dead than found in a library doing research, no amount of talking Astros-Red Sox trades is going to help you (well, maybe, if the Astros had someone real to trade…but I digress).  But then why would you be looking for a job in this field in the first place?  I'm in the process of transitioning to a full-time writer, but while getting there I love the job I'm in too.  I also love my family, and my friends, and relaxing and having a good time.  In other words I am, like all of you, real.  That reality is something which needs to come across in the job search, both for your sake and for others.

"Keeping it real" isn't always going to mesh with your given Interviewer, which is why it's a good thing that there are actually a decent number of jobs out there, and a number of alternatives to the academic profession in the meantime.  In the long run, though, what graduate programs have to do a much better job of is showing Otis and everyone else that fear and desperation are not the only watchwords in getting a job, and that they too have valuable things to offer.  They need to give them safety nets (postdocs, even for humanities graduate students; good words put in at other departments; legitimate alternative options if the academic ones don't pan out).  Most of all, they need to stop throwing Otis into the equivalent of a stone cell and teasing him/her with visions of the city on the hill outside the window.  It's time to stop spreading the horror stories and start spreading the truth.

And perhaps the truth will set Otis free to watch real horror stories.

Dec 11

Know (a) Child Left Behind?

Posted by A Writer

I just administered my first final exam of the semester today, and as I watched my students busily scribble away in their blue books I started thinking about testing.  My exams have short answers (an irony which my students seem not to appreciate, walking out of the session shaking their cramped writing hands and smiling sheepishly) and essays, and I ask questions which require much more than one word answers.  Result?  A fair (I believe and have been told) and challenging (I believe and have been assured in no uncertain terms) exam which helps determine if the students have learned how to think about literature and the specific works we studied more deeply.  For most of my teaching career I've avoided the multiple choice/fill in the blank/true or false type of test like the plague because, well, they usually suck.  A lot.  The vast majority of those exams only assess whether the students have successfully managed to cram the exact knowledge they were told they would need into their caffeinated (and I hope that's all) brains for the two hours of the exam period, after which they will proceed to forget ninety-five percent of it.  Yes, I'm afraid the secret is out: cramming works exceptionally well in the short term and exceptionally poorly in the long term, and these exams ask (practically demand at gunpoint) you to cram like mad to get ready for them.  Good for test scores, great for speedy grading (ScanTron is your friend!), not good for real education.

Of course educators have known for years that there are some serious drawbacks to this model, and they've known something else too: exams themselves are really freaking evil–perhaps necessary evil(s), but evils nonetheless.  Because of all the things we do in our classrooms–presentations, discussions, activities, lectures, interpretive dances (those are the really good classes), the one item which contributes absolutely nothing to the actual educational process is the test.  Doesn't matter how well it's designed, how fair yet tough yet reasonable yet challenging it is, all a test is designed to do is assess progress: is this student getting it?  It generally doesn't even do a great job of determining what exactly the student isn't getting or how to help him or her get it in the future; it just says that whatever you thought you knew about x subject, you didn't.  It's the Check Engine light of the educational process; something's wrong, but who the hell knows what.  Beyond that it's a total waste of time.  Students learn nothing from even the most carefully structured exams (except to avoid them whenever possible), and the angst created by the onrushing specter of a test at any level almost overrides the value of having it as a measuring tool.  Still, students need to get some kind of assessment, however broad and imperfect; teachers and parents need to understand if the students aren't grasping what they need to, and tests are one of the few ways that we can determine that fact.  Just as long as we don't make it the centerpiece of our educational strategy.  Which we wouldn't do, because we trust teachers to, by and large, do what's best for the students, right?

Uh-oh.

Yeah.  You see, the problem is that we've stopped trusting teachers on all levels (probably everywhere to a degree, but certainly in America) because we've begun to sense something is radically wrong with the educational system.  Reading and writing skills are diminishing, American students are falling farther and farther behind in math and science, and we're all losing ground to other nations (I think politicians would all instantly collapse if they couldn't use race-running analogies at least once a day).  A whole host of complex factors have gone into creating this problem: economic disparities among school districts, the increasing influence of the Internet (bad bloggers!  Bad!), less parental involvement (itself owing to a host of complex factors), and so on.  Thus, what we need is a multi-faceted approach which allows for local decision making and a fast, agile national advisory system made up of experienced educators, parents and students (why yes, they might indeed have something valuable to contribute about the education they are currently experiencing!) to make suggestions about further professional development of faculty, greater educational opportunities for students, and addressing the social conditions which impact the educational process.  Right?

No, silly rabbit…what we actually need is more testing.  Because that's the message of the astonishingly cynically named No Child Left Behind policy, President Bush's grand vision of education in the future.  And like all things from the minds of the Bush Administration, the vision is an extremely simple one: obviously, the reason education isn't working in this country is because the educators aren't working hard enough.  The fault, Dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in our…well, you know.  Yep, for too long the professional educators of this country have gotten away with subpar standards and a total lack of accountability (come on, they even get the summer off!), and it's our children (as ever) who have suffered.  But NCLB, which allows the federal government to withhold federal education funding from schools unless teachers are "highly qualified" (which we determine by testing, natch) and students have met certain basic criteria (which basically involves being tested every time they leave the lunchroom), has changed all that, because now, if those hippie slacker teacher types don't do their job, BOOM!  Out goes the funding.  See how you like your summers now, bitches.  And it's worked: according to the Department of Education, over forty states have either held the line or improved in all categories (well, all two of them–reading and math–but what else matters, anyway?)  See what happens when you run the race to win?!?  

Except, unfortunately, that when you look at any measure besides the tests themselves–and NCLB has convincingly proven that if you threaten people with dire consequences if they don't pass tests, people will definitely do better on tests–the picture is far less rosy.  First of all, the obsession with testing (and believe me, there are so many of them now that ScanTron can't turn out those bubble sheets for the multiple choice/fill in the blank/true or false exams fast enough) has reached such a fever pitch in the educational world that all things not specifically relating to testing (i.e., all the real education, as I mentioned above) have been unceremoniously shoved to the sidelines, with predictable results. Arts, social studies, and foreign languages have been drastically cut back in many areas of the country; as principal Kathy Deck says, "It hurts me to give up art, but it hurts me even more to have kids who can't read.  I have to decide where I will get the biggest bang for my buck."

That's the spirit!

Even worse, the brass ring chase this has engendered has meant that the thing many teachers are now spending most of their time on is–surprise!–preparation for the test.  And since, as I said above, testing is a waste of time educationally, it means that students are doing really well on the tests they were taught to prepare for and really poorly on the most important thing of all: how to think critically in conditions not possible to recreate in an exam.  What happens when a student confronts a new item entirely outside his/her realm of experience?  Will he/she, having learned how to think and reason, consider alternatives and determine a solution?  Or will he/she, not facing a test question for which he/she has been prepared for months, be entirely clueless?

I guess I'll leave that not-so-rhetorical question for all of you to answer.

And finally, the low performing students, who will ruin everything for the schools if their scores are included with the rest, are kicked out at the earliest possible legal opportunity, while the gifted and talented kids are, as usual, left to fend for themselves.  Special needs and ESL students are, of course, not really important to begin with.  I guess No Average Student is Left Behind, though…or at least not the ones who aren't interested in subjects besides the reading and math on which they're tested.

Fortunately I haven't had to deal with this nonsense on the college level, where we are still given relative autonomy to do our jobs.  But the mania for assessment has permeated higher education, too; we're being asked to create rubrics, assessment sheets, outcome lists, and so on, all precursors of the "show me the numbers!" model which is the NCLB's stock in trade.  Yes, the NCLB is everywhere, and so it's small wonder that it's hard to find a single educator (not administrator–there's often, though not always, a difference) who actually likes the NCLB, and easy to find many who think it to be the worst piece of legislation they've ever seen.  No doubt this is coming from the lazy teachers, who are upset at having their fat cat lifestyles threatened (30-40k a year'll buy some serious bling!), but since they're actually professional educators, while the NCLB visionaries aren't, it does make you wonder a little bit.  Could it be that in our zeal to slap easy labels on complex problems, blame the system on the people working in it, and lean on charts, graphs, and figures for guidance, we've gone way overboard?  Could we actually be doing much more harm than good to the education of our young people?

I don't know.  Will these questions be on the test?

Dec 7

I've had waiting on my mind lately, possibly because in every aspect of my life I'm having to wait for something.  Part of that is the curse of my particular career choices; nothing on earth is slower than the academic world, except, possibly, the mainstream publishing world.  The maddening thing, of course, is the follow-up; it's not enough to politely ask for an update once, or twice, or four or five times (and it is always you who must ask, my friends.  It is not the responsibility of the responder to get back to you without a lot of gently applied pressure.  Apparently.).  No, you must repeatedly plague the offending responder like the over-clingy cat you are, desperate for a bowl of milk.  (A bowl which was promised six months ago, of course.)  This used to be a problem we would encounter once in a while, but the issue seems now to have become ubiquitous.  Consider:

1.  My university-issued laptop needs repair.  It has needed repair since the beginning of the semester, when I was assured (with no small amount of sheepish resignation) that it "might take a couple of weeks."  I'm a reasonable guy.  I can get along for a couple of weeks.

December 6, 2007.  The laptop?  "About to be repaired.  Any moment.  The part's in, I've got a call in to my guy, Taiwan shipped it, it's in transit, the second it gets here I'll get it right out to you."  "Can you call me when it does?"  (I have asked this question each and every time I have been back to inquire about the laptop during the semester, always without having had a call to my office updating me on the situation, probably eight to ten times now.)  The answer, as ever:  "Sure.  That's what we're here for."  Odd, and I thought it was to fix my goddamned laptop.

2.  I've been waiting to hear when an essay of mine will be appearing in a book collection which was intended to be published in 2006.  Mid-2006.  The proofs were in the publisher's hands in early 2006.  I'm a patient guy.  There's no huge rush.

… 

December 6, 2007.  The book?  "Should be any second.  I feel good about it.  I appreciate your patience, I've got a call in to the editor, it's going to press any day, the second it gets here I'll get it right out to you."  "Can you E-mail me?"  (I have asked this question each and every time I have E-mailed to inquire about the book during the semester, always without having had an E-mail updating me on the situation, probably three or four times now.)  The answer, as ever:  "Sure.  I'll do whatever you need me to do."  Other than publish the book, apparently.

3.  My band is in need of a new player, as the old one has semi-retired from playing out (marriage will do that to you, he says).   I ask a replacement about it two weeks ago.  "Wow, I'm definitely interested.  Give me a couple of days to think it over."  I'm a reasonable guy.  We can afford to wait a couple of days.

… 

… 

December 6, 2007.  The replacement player?  "Sorry I haven't gotten back to you.  Been crazy busy.  I'm kind of overwhelmed, I'm not sure what to say, I might be able to, I'm not sure, give me until the end of the month and I should have the time to make a decision [sic]."  Can you call me when you decide?"  "Of course…I'd definitely do that."  Odd, I thought he was "definitely" interested in playing. 

The common thread in all of these situations, of course, is that unspoken resentment on the part of the person I'm talking to, as if I should be fully aware that time is a fluid thing which is only measured by our perceptions of it.  Deadlines are suggestions, not guarantees.  And I'm even somewhat sympathetic to this view philosophically–really, what is a few days or weeks or months or years in the grand scheme of things?  

Actually, a whole hell of a lot.  All that waiting time adds up, and it only goes one way.  How fluid are deadlines for submitting grades?  Or times for showing up at a club to play a set?  Or appearing at court, or going to a play or a concert, or being home in time for the birth of your child?  Answer: not at all.  We just don't think of those things in the same way, and we don't expect those events to wait for us to catch up.  Yet somehow, we have decided that it's fine to accept a fluid timescale from  people who owe us things, even if the delay is, say, months or years…as it commonly is with tech support guys, publishers, and musicians.  Now I agree that we are a culture driven by instant gratification in a lot of ways, that we may perhaps demand speed and efficiency at the cost of our own humanity, that we probably post with too much dexterity to our own incestuous sheets.  Perhaps we are dominated by the clock in so many ways that we look for places to play fast and loose with the firm deadline, to in some small way hold off the relentless passage of time.  All this may be true.

But honestly, I just want my laptop fixed, my book published, and my replacement player at rehearsal.  And this time I'm using my goddamned stopwatch.

Dec 6

 

[Warning: a few minor spoilers may be found below.]  Okay, full disclosure: I teach the poem Beowulf, and since it seems that every fantasy-related work I teach in that class is destined to have a lousy movie made about it, I wanted to weigh in here.  Thus far reviews seem to be running towards the positive side, about 70% on Rotten Tomatoes from both critics and users (who would have thought they could get along?) and a B grade average from the critics at Yahoo Movies.  Sounds reasonable; hell, the RT users gave The Shawshank Redemption 98%, so obviously they know what's what, right?  And just check out the raves the critics are giving the film:

"An animated action epic you can feel in your loins."   (Nice.  I felt The Polar Express in my elbow, mostly.)

 "…plenty of swordplay, monster-slaying and a naked Angelina Jolie turn the centuries-old poem into a bitching action movie." (Bitching!)

"Beowulf couldn't be less faithful to the original epic poem, and that's actually a good thing for moviegoers. It's a lot more fun than the mythic adventure most of us read in school." 

Whoa, whoa, wait a minute.  What?

Uh-oh.  Turns out USA Today's Claudia Puig (I have no idea…if your name was Puig, you'd probably have to become a movie reviewer too) pretty much summarizes what everyone who loves the movie loves most about it: it's not Beowulf.  Really.  It's got a cool warrior, sure, and a whothehellknowswhatthisisbutit'sabad-ass monster, and a kick-ass dragon, and a hot woman, and sweet CG graphics (if you don't already know, that means computer-generated, and get with the program if you didn't know, you fossils!).  But it's definitely not the poem, and that's great.  Apparently.  You can tell from all the offhanded references to "wouldn't please the English teachers" in these reviews that there are some awfully bitter ex-AP English refugees out there.

Now I'll be the first to admit that Beowulf taught wrong wouldn't be a fun experience for anyone.  I read it for the first time in college, but if I had been a high school freshman trying to slog through too much "Ongeat pa se goda grund-wyrgenne, / mere-wif mihtig; maegen-raes forgeaf" I probably would have ripped off my own arm.  (By the way, that means "The hero observed that swamp-thing from hell, / the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength."  It's talking about Grendel's mother.  You know, Angelina Jolie.  The resemblance is striking.  Surprised)  But the fact that some teachers teach the poem too early, or don't know how to teach it properly (by forgetting to emphasize the fact that it is a bitching action poem as well, for example, or actually trying to make modern students read it in the original Old English instead of a good translation), isn't a reason to throw it out, or approve of a movie which thinks it's okay to do so.  What this appears to come down to is that a lot of people are going to see the movie, thinking "Thank God, it was called Beowulf but I didn't want to gouge my eyes out from boredom watching it the way I did when Mrs. Grumpleclown made me read it in high school, this is obviously a masterwork," and then going home and writing reviews about how freaking great it is.

Bitching!

But the problem with this is that in the meantime, the actual story isn't getting told.  This isn't the first time they've taken a shot at Beowulf, you know; a movie came out in 2005 called Beowulf and Grendel which was even worse (I've seen it, and all I can say is that when you have Grendel as a 7 foot tall Neanderthal who yells a lot and an inexplicable (and inexplicably) Scottish woman, hot though she may be, who plays the "must have sex in this tale somehow" role, you've got problems), and there was even a sci-fi try with the inimitable Christopher Lambert before that.  And in each case, the story itself has gotten lost.  This is an action tale, yes, and there is a curse, yes, but it's an action tale about a very flawed man whose only "curse" is to trust himself above all others, even in the end when he's well beyond his "taking out nine sea monsters at once" years.  Beowulf is a great hero, and an inspirational one, but he also falsely believes (despite warnings from Hrothgar) that he can conquer everything, even death itself.  In the meantime he's not doing anything to teach his people how to defend themselves, and the end of the poem is sad precisely because he doesn't realize his limitations, or more exactly, because he doesn't realize that he needs others to overcome them.  Result?  Beowulf's country after his death is in big, big trouble.  In the movie, it's really all Grendel's mother's fault, evidently, and since Angelina Jolie is hot, I guess we can't blame the men for being all hot and bothered by her even if she is a "swamp-thing from hell."

Look, I don't have any problem with playing with mythology; my almost-finished second novel plays with myths a bit too, and a lot of good fantasy fiction stretches and inverts standard conventions.  My problem is that we haven't actually seen the standard conventions of this tale yet, an honest to God Beowulf as the poet intended, and I think that story deserves to be seen on film.  Such a story would still be bitching even without Angelina Jolie.  Neil Gaiman (for whom I have a lot of respect–he can write and is a good guy too), who co-wrote the screenplay, says that this film is "filling in the gaps."  Except it's not; it's creating new gaps and then filling them.  If you want something which fills in the gaps, go read John Gardner's Grendel, which tells the Beowulf story from Grendel's perspective and which plays with and expands the original greatly without doing violence to the spirit of the work.  In fact, you could do a pretty good movie about that book too.  But in the meantime, make a movie just like the one you made, but call it The Revenge of Grendel's Hot Mom or something like that.  And leave your bitterness over your boring high school English classes at the door, please; take it out on The Scarlet Letter, if you must, but leave poor old Beowulf alone.  He's got enough to worry about.