I think the bones of our course are fairly easy to describe. I might say to a new teacher something like this:

1. Create an environment where writing seems an appropriate action (with readings, engagements, questions, problems), and
2. Respond vigorously to what gets written (and said) as both a reader and an interested colleague (fellow thinker).

This is too simplifying, of course. “Creating an environment” brings with it all kinds of ecological baggage. It also sounds too mystical, as if students will magically come to life if the right pedagogical feng shui is adopted. “Respond vigorously” is too teacher-centric, too heroic and authoritative. But my intention in figuring it this way is to steer the conversation about teaching writing away from the suggestion that teachers provide instruction, especially instruction aimed at a generic student in a generic writing situation (e.g., always begin paragraphs with a topic sentence). My heart sinks when I see writing courses described as sites for delivery of a specific form of information about how to write. Writing marks an energized boundary between parties, and its movement to and fro, from succinct summary to unwieldy, idiosyncratic suggestion (and many places in between) is not something we can so easily track or contain. Academic writing in particular should be typified by its dialectical, osmotic communications, not by its adherence to an exact form. When we focus too exclusively on getting things right rather than having something to say, we drain our courses of their possibility and we falsely posit a world that is not in question and not constantly changing.

In a conversation I had with a new teacher this past semester, we stumbled across a term that might help explain what I mean. We had been talking about the dubious medical analogies that sometimes appear in writing instruction—diagnosis and treatment of symptoms. It wasn’t that long ago that a local college around here advertised its writing support with an image of a stethoscope. Some of us are doctors, of course, but we’re generally averse to that kind of authority. ‘Prescriptive’ is a well-known term of disparagement in teaching circles. We don’t want our assignments to be prescriptive, to present prescriptions to aid the patient—”follow these directions: take two passages, compare them productively, and call me in the morning.”

I propose (tentatively, sheepishly, and somewhat tongue-in-cheekly) that we call what we do post-scribing, as the bulk of our work must come in response to a project in formation, especially in our written comments to students. The ‘action’ in teaching writing is in hearing what our students have to say, in raising questions to make visible a way of reading and making use of their work, and in making suggestions about what might come next.

Journey into History

Recent events have given me cause to dig into the Freshman English archives, which go back to the mid-1980s.  This is fascinating reading.  I’m serious here– there’s a real difference of style in how the Freshman English Program and the English Department communicated back then compared to now. Lots of long letters, long memos. Now, when we send out a memo with the weekly Digest, we fret that no one will read it if it’s longer than a couple paragraphs. In the past, Professor Thomas Recchio could not only send out a three-page letter about a proposed course change, he would receive multi-page letters from instructors in response! These longer communications are often in a different tone, more formal at times, but also more informal, more prone to dry humor.

I don’t know who  Professor Compton Rees was, other than that he was apparently the Director of Freshman English in the late 1980s, after Hap Fairbanks (a venerable and consistent presence in these documents) and before Tom Recchio. I particularly enjoyed a January 27, 1989 memo of his about overenrollment in ENGL 105 and 109 (the predecessors to our modern 1010 and 1011), which were capped at 22 (“regrettably… beyond the national limit”), but suffering from the “fake drop” strategy, where students would pretend to drop a section, so their friend could add it, but never file the drop card so that the course ended up overenrolled.  Professor Rees attempts to offer strategies for countering the “fake drop,” one of which is, “Ask students to volunteer to drop the course. Hah.”  My favorite, though, is:

Tell your class that it is overenrolled and that it will have to be reduced. Read “The Lottery.” Choose lots and eliminate all those with black spots.

I like it.

Continue reading

Contributing to the University

David Bartholomae’s essay “Inventing the University,” is still a foundational text of composition studies, a testament to Bartholomae’s farsightedness and his understanding of student work.  In that piece, he argues that “every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion—invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English” (60).  “Invention” serves as the principal metaphor here, a choice Bartholomae uses “to allude to rhetorical invention as it was then being imagined and practiced, particularly invention as ‘pre-writing,’” through which he “wanted to push against the poverty or the anti-intellectualism of much that was driving the ‘process’ movement in the field” (Interview 269).

This invention, then, is not strictly the invention of topos; instead, the evidence of students’ “inventing” is manifest in writer and style: the student writer tries to take on the mantle of the university discourse community and emulate voices and adopt conventions assumed belong in the work of the university.

These conventions alongside the responding figure of the writer remain in place as Bartholomae examines some of the common moves deployed in academe work.  In the context of reading a student essay, Bartholomae rehearses the ironic rendering of a writing prompt delivered by Fred Main,  “While most readers of ____________ have said _______________, a close and careful reading shows that ___________________” (Inventing 75).  The boiler plate structure is familiar to us—the form lets the writer downplay what has been said before in favor of a new reading, which Bartholomae recognizes as  “trading in one set of commonplaces at the expense of another” in order to “win themselves status as members of what is taken to be some more privileged group” (76).   To Bartholomae, this conventional form “took what felt like an existential problem and made it a writing problem, one that could be addressed formally. It wasn’t that I needed something to say; it was that I needed to create a space on the page that called forth a figure who had something to say” (Interview 274).

Bartholomae sees this liberating moment as the road to ethos.  Visible in the form but not addressed in Bartholomae’s response is the role of reading behaviors—close and careful—and on the way the writer interacts with the text.  In Main’s template, the existential question, “who am I as a writer?” is answered in the practices of the writer as reader.  But I think that establishing the writer as writer means examining what happens when the writer begins to craft an essay after the close and careful reading.

That point of reading-to-writing is the space in which students also consider what they have to say. While Bartholomae’s “Inventing” argument foregrounds the struggle to assimilate to “the distinctive register of academic discourse,” I’ve found that students also struggle with what they believe they should say.  They confront another “invention” puzzle:  finding a topic they believe worthy of college-level work.  Continue reading

The Buddha and Critical Thinking

I remember when it first occurred to me that I wasn’t completely in control of my mind. I was sitting in an upper-level history class, and the professor was giving us examples of Cold War propaganda.  I thought about my irrational childhood fear of Russian kids. As a boy, I imagined them in heavy coats, breathing frost, and doing math, planning my destruction.

Nobody explicitly told me to fear and hate Communist Russians; it was just part of the cultural context of growing up in the 80s South. When undergrad Michael figured out that history and power structures were manipulating (for less than noble purposes) his moral and fantasy life, he almost fell out of his chair. I was a junior in college when I had my historical awakening.  That was moment was pivot for me, a place for deeper engagement with myself and the world. It’s the kind of moment FE at UConn can help foster. That’s why I developed critical thinking mode using Buddhist philosophy, to help engender that “critical” awakening.

My critical thinking model revolves around three core concepts of Buddhist philosophy: interconnection, samsara  (“the illusion of reality”), and non-self. I’m going to stick with how interconnection works in the developing vocabulary of my current FE class because it’s becoming, by far, the most important. Continue reading

Writing v. Reading: May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor

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When I was deciding between PhD programs, I was interviewed by a composition program to determine whether or not I would receive a TA.  The interview took place on the phone, not my best medium, and I was very aware of how much was riding on my success.

“So, what have you taught before?” the interviewer asked. Continue reading

“…to see the object as in itself it really is.”

I read a lot of monographs over the last year for my Ph.D. exams, and there were a number of times where I wanted to find the author and shout, “But what are you saying about Thomas Hardy!? You’re just saying Tess of the D’Urbervilles is kinda like this other thing. I’d give my students a C if they gave me this!”  Here in Freshman English, I hear a lot of different permutations of this idea (we just had a teaching development seminar yesterday about “creating new knowledge”), but when I was reading for my exams, I was really struck by Matthew Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864) and what it said about academic writing, specifically why we create that new knowledge (or try to).

I don't really get the joke in the caption, but the picture is hilarious on its own merits, I think. (From Punch, by way of Wikipedia.)
I don’t really get the joke in the caption, but the picture is hilarious on its own merits, I think. (From Punch, by way of Wikipedia.)

Now, some of what Arnold writes here is a little odd– I don’t think that I believe that culture goes through some periods where it’s better at producing good creative work, and others where it’s better at producing criticism– but I really liked when he described criticism as disinterested.  What does “disinterested” mean? Continue reading

Ovular Logic

In the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1962 adaptation of The Trial, a suddenly awakened and apparently under arrest Mr. K. (Anthony Perkins) responds to the oblique requests of police inspectors. One inspector begins to document the evidence in the room by writing in a notebook. This writing, we learn in several ways, is a flawed record, subject to the errors of the observer and observed and also embedded within a greater logic of accusation which imbues each “fact” with the suggestion of an already-settled narrative. Anticipating that the inspectors may be looking for pornography, for example, K. mistakenly refers to his record player as his “pornograph.” The inspector taking notes writes this down, and this “finding” comes up later. Is K. concealing something? Is he lying?

Continue reading

Sprouting Acorns

On my rather long drive in today, the first day of classes, I noticed  that the leaves have conspired to announce the academic year as they transform from a deep summer green to the yellows and oranges and reds soon to become the mosaics beneath our feet.

Landscape with Trees, Piet Mondrian, 1933
Piet Mondrian, Landscape with Trees, 1933

The University, whose former logo had an oak leaf bearing acorns, welcomes what it conceives of as student seedlings transplanted for our–the faculty’s–cultivation.  It may be supposed that we are in the business of ensuring that “an ook cometh of a litel spyr” (thanks be to Chaucer). What does the University expect of these students?  That’s what every entering student wonders when settling into the first classroom on the first day.  What fruits will I bear–and how many pages does that mean I will write?  When they enter your classroom, they may well believe. . . Continue reading

Welcome Back

6-16 kotter6New year, new start to the Freshman English blog. Never mind the older dates on the posts below. They’re probably new to you anyway. But, yes, our first go round stalled a bit in our second semester, when we were beset by technical problems and, alas, a narrowing-then-closed window for writing. The technical problems are solved, as we have moved to UConn’s cutting edge web solution. You’ll note the new site address (“feblog” should be easier to remember), the new site look (we have only one “choice” with this new server), but the same can-do attitude. A golden rule of teaching is never promise anything (something we learn by promising to return papers by a certain date). So no promises here. But we will try our best to have something new here each week.

Term(inal) Papers

One of the topics of conversation around here has been “The Research Paper”; in particular, the question of whether FE instructors are required to assign a research paper.  (You are definitely missing out on some productive conversations if you don’t hang around the FE Triangle [163, 126, and 125]). Many composition instructors are accustomed to assigning a final or penultimate paper that requires substantial research (usually for secondary sources).  You know the drill:  students are to find, evaluate, and use something on the order of five sources as evidence in the service of a cogent argument.  You’re probably also accustomed to the range and overall quality of sources that students include in that “Works Cited.”  While the practice of assigning a research paper is a familiar one, it’s also a practice that comes with a number of problems, not the least of which is the time we would need to spend to teach students how to find useful sources.  In my experience, it takes students more than a couple of “library days” to acquire the wherewithal to root out the best options for their work among the many texts they will find through the library portal and “out there” on the open Internet.  I’d rather spend the time working with students on what’s inside shared texts so that they consider how they might position themselves in relation to the words of others, how to work on the other writers’ words rather than use those words to reiterate their own claims, and how to fashion and follow through on their own lines of thought.  (See my first “Thesis” post on my thoughts about the Law & Order style of essay.) That’s critical thinking to my mind. Continue reading