Small Demon
Dec 132008
 

Just finished grading my last set of papers & now I’m on sabbatical until next September. The papers brought me up short, I must admit. They were from a freshman class and we had finished the semester reading Margret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a very smart & entertaining book, I think. My students seemed to like it too, but their papers were, with only a few exceptions, dismal. I have to take some of the blame for this, though, because I should have gone over the basics of evolution with them before turning them loose on a novel about the hazards of genetic engineering for fun & pleasure. Many of them went wrong by assuming that evolution is teleological, i.e., that it leads inevitably to us. Others fouled up by assuming the meaning of “natural” to be self-evident. But the most breathtaking move — which showed up several times — was importing an entire metaphysics unexamined into an argument with a single sentence: We were put on earth for a reason. By whom & for what was never mentioned. What my students were really saying, I think, is something like “the world makes sense” — a rejection of nihilism. That rejection might have been a good start, but I didn’t get the chance to move them along since this was the final essay in the semester.

Actually, I’m dissatisfied with the way I have structured the course. I like the content I’ve worked up since we rennovated the curriculum three years ago — the authentic individual in a social context, the problems of establishing justice — but the wriing element isn’t really working. I’ve always just assigned four 3-5 page essays with opportunity for infinite revisions, but most of the essays turned in are essentially rough drafts. So when I go back to this class next year I’m going to make some changes.

  1. I’ll reduce the nmber of major texts and supplement them with critical essays. I’ve been using Graff’s little handbook They Say / I Say & when I can get them to adopt its methods, my students are better writers. (I’m also looking at a similar book, Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, but it seems aimed more at advanced writers of academic prose.) But I have to do more in class with this “entering the conversation” trope. In fact, I have to have workshop sessions using student writing. So:
  2. I’m going to assign six two-page essays starting in week one, with one final essay of 5-6 pages that develops some idea from earlier writing. We will use these two-pagers in class to discuss the various kinds of moves you can make in writing. Basically, I’ll do what I do in my creative writing workshops.
  3. Possible book list: The Book of Job (Mitchell translation), Utopia (More), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Oryx & Crake (Atwood), along with a simple text on evolution and a pocket style guide. [Great video here of Atwood discussing her novel.]

  3 Responses to “End of Term Blues”

  1. I ran into similar trouble this semester, against the assumption that evolution = progress, whether moral, economic, biological, or cultural.

    Regarding Harris’ _Rewriting_, I used it with first year classes this fall. I don’t know how many students actually read it carefully, but they found Harris’ descriptions of rhetorical moves and techniques to be helpful, and it got results in their essays. A similar book I’ve gotten good results from is Frank Cioffi’s _The Imaginative Argument_.

  2. I’ve used creative-writing-workshop methods in talking about academic-essay writing to great effect; I recommend it highly.

  3. Thanks Joe, and thanks to Steve for the suggestions on books on writing. My experience was similar. I do wonder if my expectations are too high. I seek measureable improvement in student writing over the course of a single semester. If there is solace to be found in Joe’s entry it is that final papers are almost always a disappointment. Student attention is dispersed at semester’s end, and the essays reflect staleness and poor time management. I’m acutely aware of my limits as a teacher of writing.

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