Small Demon
Jul 262008
 

William Major had a good column at Inside Higher Ed last week & surprisingly the comment thread generated by Major’s essay is intelligent & civil. (IHE has the most persistent anti-intellectual right-wing trolls on the internet — interesting as an anthropological study, but deeply dispiriting for regular reading.) Major’s main contention is that more full profs ought to be teaching comp & since I’m a full prof who regularly teaches comp I find it difficult to disagree. He also notes that the exploitation of adjuncts cannot be a good thing for writing instruction even though most adjuncts teaching comp do an heroic job under impossible working conditions. I’ve been teaching freshmen to write since 1979 & have developed a few theses on the subject — from the philosophical to the pedestrian — that I will now nail to the classroom door:

  1. The purpose of all education in the humanities is to disrupt students’ preconceptions about the world they live in. (Disruption is only the first step, but it is necessary.) Critical thinking is disruption of received ideas & conventional wisdom.
  2. Writing cannot be taught outside of a context of reading & responding to a variety of tests. The texts themselves ought to mix high & low culture, the familiar & the strange. Students often respond effectively to the strangeness at the margins of genre.
  3. Form follows function: students must have a reason to write before they will learn to write well. Among the writing teacher’s most important tasks is to help students discover the full implications of their particular rhetorical situation:who are they writing to? About what? Why is it important?
  4. In a typical composition class ten percent of the students will easily master the basics of style & usage, moving quickly on to considerations of paragraph structure, transitions & logical development. At the other end of the scale, ten percent will never master these things — at best, they will “aspire to the semicolon,” as Kay Ryan, the new poet laureate, said of her developmental writing students. The eighty percent of students in between these extreems are the main concern of the composition instructor.
  5. The five-paragraph essay is a blight upon the intellectual life of the nation.
  6. Writing teachers ought to be, in however modest a sense, writers themselves. They must share the struggle for high-level literacy with their students.
  7. Writing teachers ought to be sophisticated & curious readers both inside & outside their narrow disciplines. (When institutionally feasible, faculty from different departments ought to enter the Composition classroom, as visitors or full-fledged participants.
  8. Too many students are tracked into four-year institutions not designed to serve their needs.
  9. Conventions are important, but not a goal in themselves. Expectations need to be explicit, especially for the conventions of academic writing: If you want precise manuscript mechanics, fonts, etc., put it in writing. If you deduct a point for each spelling error, make that explicit. (These are really forms of social behavior, like learning to dress appropriately for different situations.)
  10. Tell students how you will evaluate them. If you are a stickler for deadlines, make them explicit.
  11. The five-paragraph essay is the enemy of deep literacy. It promotes the idea that thought amounts to a loose accumulation of examples rather than as a structure built for a purpose in which the parts depend upon one another to create an argument. (An argument is not a debate.)
  12. Colleges must recognize & justly compensate writing teachers, recognizing the labor-intensive nature of the work. The opposite situation prevails mostly under current practice, with writing teachers being at the bottom of the academic class system.
  13. The purpose of the enterprise — beyond turning out employable workers — is to contribute to the development of students as persons who are sufficiently connected to their world & to themselves that they can act successfully as free agents within our quasi-democracy. Perhaps as reagents. Which will no doubt make them less suitable as workers — we end in paradox, as usual.
Jul 252008
 

Just wanted to note that Kay Ryan has been on my radar for quite a while, though I’d known none of the details now coming out about her life now that she has been named poet laureate. As someone who teaches Freshman English every fall, I was particularly impressed by the fact that Ryan teaches basic writing at a community college:

“It was mainly second-language students and students who lost their way in school,” Ryan says. “They wanted something that I could help them get: an understanding of the basic elements of grammar, pronouns, those pesky apostrophes. The goal was to write an effective paragraph that was coherent and well supported. We aspired to the semicolon, but that rarely happened.”

This, too, struck a chord with me:

But the stress of becoming America’s ambassador of poetry is already keeping her up at night. “I just lie in bed rigidly,” she says, “and I think about how I have moved from a condition where the world can humiliate me to one where I can humiliate myself. And let down other poets.”

The sentiment is consistent with the attitude expressed in this journal Ryan wrote while attending her first AWP conference. Unlike Ryan, I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to fit in at AWP (I was even on the board) & elsewhere before giving it up as damaging. (Though much of the damage was self-inflicted, only aided & abetted by the culture industry.) Anyway, I’m glad to have a poet like Ryan as the laureate. I must say in closing that I appreciated Mark Strand’s remark on the laureateship — after having read about the non-poetic demands of the job as recounted by recent honorees Charles Simic & Billy Collins, it was refreshing to read, “For others, though, the sudden celebrity is an upside. Mark Strand, who served from 1990 to 1991, says that hobnobbing at cocktail and dinner parties was his favorite part of the job.”

[See also this note (with two short poems) from 3 Quarks Daily.]

Jul 182008
 

My month in paradise has come to an end & I have returned to . . . paradise. It is lovely to be home, though it’s going to take a while to get through the mail. I already feel a bit of nostalgia for BMC, but am also carrying forward certain consolidations in my work that were achieved. I also already miss the people I shared the month with — the good news is that we’ll be setting up a group weblog in order to carry forward the conversations begun in paradise. That dynamic — between Eden & the World — can be very rich, for those of us privileged to experience it. The first time I went to BMC fifteen years ago, I felt as if I deserved it; no one deserves such a luxury, but sometimes one is lucky. The problem then is how to live up to one’s good fortune. To have had those conversations, to have listened to the crows, to have seen the loons on the lake, to have watched through the clear water huge bass hanging motionless . . . that exerts a responsibility.

Jul 152008
 

I’ve been circumspect blogging about BMC — I don’t want to have the sense that I’m invading anyone’s privacy, while at the same time wanting to give some impression of my time here. (I have in fact password protected one post that seemed overly personal.) Now that the month is winding down, I’d just like to say how impressive a group my fellow-campers are. Each & every one a fine artist from whom I’ve learned something. I’ve had a pretty good month working & will leave with seven or eight finished poems I didn’t have before, as well as with an outline of the book-length poem I’ve been thrashing around with. I probably could have done more, but I’ve always been a streak worker — I’ve had three mini-streaks each lasting a few days while I’ve been here & I couldn’t have expected more. In the periods between streaks I did a lot of useful reading & had many, many fine conversations. A good month.