Sunday, December 4, 2011

Symbiotic or Symbolic? be the judge

Even though I received high scores on my paper on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, I was disappointed that the teacher's aid edited my paper in a way that changed the entire meaning of a main point. I'm sure that all you authors out there experience this when your editor returns your mark-ups. Even though I met with him on it and he stands by his changes - I still stand by my original wording. I decided I'd just put it out there and let the bloggers decide if he was right.

I was discussing the relationship between a character who violently and ruthlessly acquired ivory and rubber in the Congo in exchange for money from England, but more importantly, he received the status and recognition that fed his ego and healed deep emotional wounds he received by the middle class rejecting him. It was more than just a give and take - it was his sustenance. I described this relationship as "symbiotic". Imagine a clown fish in an anemone. He receives shelter in the anemone and in return he feeds it. It may initially sting him, but he will continue to live in it and eventually become immune to the sting.

My TA said I can't use a scientific term when writing about historical literature. He crossed it out and put "symbolic" in its place. I did not MEAN it was symbolic. I could use the term but would have had to add an explanation as to what it symbolized. Isn't it better to just use the descriptive word "symbiotic" and let the reader make the connection? 

Readers - waddayathink?


  1. Keep in mind that TAs have less prestige and pay than the maintenance staff at your university, so paper grading is one of the few times they can exercise any power. And while I think the vocabulary substitution he made is ham-fisted, I kind of agree with his overworked, underpaid assessment that your word choice needs some tweaking, even if his explanation of why doesn't entirely make sense.

    You can harness scientific words like symbiotic and osmosis in literary criticism, but you need to qualify them as being used figuratively, not literally. You can soften with suffixes "symbiotic-like", "symbiotic-type" or word as a simile.

    When it comes to school assignments, remember your audience is the grader. So if this word choice is going to trip him up, it's better to seek a third alternative rather than get into a power struggle.

  2. Thank you so much Laurel! I wish he could have made as much sense as you just did. I have no problem with tweaking it in the way you explained. I have a feeling when he gives our last recitation on Thursday I'm going to have a mental image of him with a slice of ham in his fist (hehe).
    Laurel, you are so good at what you do - I look forward to reading more of your blog posts to pick up some tips on sharpening my writing skills. Check out Laurel's Blog at