“Thanks for making English fun.”

My last post was, to be fair, a barbaric yawp of despair. But now, classes have ended, final exams have been given, and my students have completed the unofficial course evals I use to supplement the uni’s “official” (read: Likert scale) ones.

And so, in the spirit of the support and kind words my last post generated (thank you, readers! they were much appreciated), this post is an act of self-kindness: a reminder that whatever my state of existential, academic-related despair, I am a damn good teacher.

(Perhaps at some point I’ll publicly parse the constructive criticism that my students provided. But, for now, I’m sticking to the sunny side of the street.)

The comments below tell me that many of my students get something out of being in my classroom and some even enjoy being there. Indeed, I’ve been teaching for six years now, and never before has the word “fun” appeared so many times in a set of evals. Given how little fun I was having this semester writ large, I am pretty damn pleased to see that.

FWIW, these are responses submitted by students in both of my classes in response to this, the last question on the unofficial eval:

10. What else would you like to tell me about your experience in this course?

Continue reading ““Thanks for making English fun.””

Writing is a road trip

A moment of horror in the copy room. That’s where this post started.

A moment of horror borne of another instructor’s handout, one that simultaneously reduced and universalized the writing “process” to a tick sheet of dos, don’ts, and otherwise. Writing is a formula, this handout shouted, one that I, as your instructor, have licked. Follow these steps, do exactly as I say though I don’t explain why, and I’ll give you an A.

I wish that I’d saved it, this castoff from another classroom, but at the time, all I wanted to do was escape it.

As a writer, as someone who teaches writing, I see composition as a road trip: you point the car in a general direction and let the road take you where it may.

Sure, you might have some idea of where you want to end up–you might choose a particular highway to take over another, after all–but you’re open to diversions, to side trips off of what you thought was the main route. And you’re willing to let those diversions rewrite your travel plans entirely.

Such an approach, however, doesn’t neatly line up with the ways in which many instructors teach writing as a “process.” While early discussions of writing-as-process made note of the messiness involved, much of that acknowledgement has been stripped away in the professionalization/commodification of composition. In place of such mess, a process designed for a flow chart, for easy replicability in any classroom, with any students, any instructor, because of course, all writers—especially first year writers!–are alike.

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Yeah, no. No no no.

One of those steps in the “process” that makes me particularly enraged is forcing students to write a “thesis statement” before they start writing an essay. See also: the horrifying “write a topic sentence for each paragraph before you start writing the essay” variant.

Let’s talk for a second about why this tactic often frustrates the crap out of students and, bonus, results in boring, slack-tastic writing:

Look, when you put these restrictions on students’ writing, you’re reinforcing the idea that a writer should know exactly what she or he wants to say before they sit down at the keyboard. You are preventing a student from writing, period. Continue reading “Writing is a road trip”

Composition’s Industrial Turn (And The Question of Who’s Left Holding the Wheel)

Ok, a quick trip down disciplinary history lane:

As Geoffrey Sirc and others have noted, composition had a choice to make back in the 1960s, when it began to behave (and thus be recognized as) a discipline: a) to fashion itself as an integral part of the university’s mechanics, thus ensuring its survival; or b), to keep on keeping on as its own weird, inscrutable thing, one whose value the university itself was likely to recognize.

In his book English Composition as a Happening, Sirc talks about this in terms of theater: composition could either become a scripted drama or remain more akin to a “happening,” a particular kind of immersive, often improvisational theater in the 60s and 70s that valued the unexpected rather than the preordained. As an audience member, you were never quite sure what to expect from happening, which were often staged in industrial spaces 180 degrees from a traditional proscenium stage and called upon each member of the audience to move independently throughout the play space. The expectation was that each individual would have a distinct experience with the play and its actors; no two encounters with the text were the same.

Of course, as Sirc bemoans, composition moved away from the spirit of the happening and towards formalization within the official structure of the university. As a discipline, composition valued its own legibility and viability over what Sirc constructs as its original, free-spirited ways–and this, for him, marks a tremendous loss of possibility and opportunity. Composition, he seems to suggest, chose to be boring. And that sucks.

I was reminded of Sirc’s argument today when reading through the website of a composition program at a land-grant university in the United States. Since I only came upon this site because of my job search, you’ll forgive me if I don’t identify which one it is (and if I complicate the quotes below a bit to obscure identifying details). That said, what’s of import here is not the university’s location, but the way in which it talks about the values of its composition program.

To wit, the program attempts to “advance [the university’s] mission to pursue academic excellence in the context of writing instruction. Undergraduate composition courses . . . help students [to become more effective] writers and researchers by [offering students]. . . flexible strategies for researching and composing texts.”

On solid ground so far. But then, there’s this: guess who is charged with “advancing” this central element of the university’s mission? Yes, they’ve chosen those who traditionally possess the least amount of teaching experience—grad students who are new to the university themselves.

Continue reading “Composition’s Industrial Turn (And The Question of Who’s Left Holding the Wheel)”

Yeah, You Got Me

Less than a month until school starts! Holy crap.

So I was talking with one of the younger Masters-level GTAs in our program today about her preparations for the rapidly-approaching semester. She’ll be teaching the first in our uni’s two-course composition sequences, and this’ll be her first time teaching that particular course. She was telling me about all of the constraints (my word, not hers) that the program places on her, as a young GTA: a list of required assignments (including grammar lessons?! WTF), a mandatory textbook, and a brand-new (mandatory) reader.

I did a terrible job of hiding my horror at this set-up, because to me, teaching is nothing if not kairotic. The system that she described, to me, seemed to strangle all of the possibilities out of teaching, especially teaching freshman comp. Look, I did my best not to be a sanctimonious git. But I have really, really strong feelings about what makes for effective teaching–especially the teaching of writing–and what my colleague was describing? Came nowhere close.

Then, ok, I realized that my approach to teaching–cultivated over time and through the hands of many fantastic mentors and role models (wow, that makes me sound old)–is nothing if not idiosyncratic. I recognize that some parameters are necessary (especially for young teachers, I guess?) and that there are, no doubt, great teachers who thrive in such a scheme.

But it got me thinking about one of the docs I’ll need to draft soon, as I prepare for the job hunt: a revised teaching philosophy. My old one feels like a good place to start, but I’ve changed a bit over the past couple of years, and the philosophe needs to reflect that.

So round 1 of that revision: brain dump of the things I do as a teacher that I see as central to my success in the classroom.

Continue reading “Yeah, You Got Me”

I May Need to Re-Read This One on My Own

I’ve had a really hard time writing of late. All kinds: my dissertation, fic, blog posts, you name it. The words have been hard to come by, even harder to put on the page.

Part of it, no doubt, lies in the building veil of anxiety that surrounds what will happen this fall. That is, come September, there’s a very real possibility that I might be the only person in my cohort going out on the job market.

Now I do my best to be a “run your own race” kind of person, so at some level, this development shouldn’t concern me at all. My colleagues and I, we are all of us faced with very different life choices at this time, and what they do or do not do on the job front has little impact on me.

However, as I’ve noted before, in my department, the job hunting season for upcoming grads is freaking spectator sport, and in this equation, I will be the object of that gaze. With the prospect of perhaps being the ONLY object from my cohort in those sights, well. Pass the Pepto and the nearest paper bag.

No doubt this has contributed to my sticky keys.

But there’s something more to it, something even more fundamental and confusing. Setting aside the problem of what employer might pay me for what, I’ve been battling the question–what kind of scholar do I want to be, exactly? What kind of job might I want (dare I even think such a thing)?

Continue reading “I May Need to Re-Read This One on My Own”

Writing is Hard(ly Something You Should Be Doing Alone)

Last month, I attended one of the two big conferences in my field, that of the Rhetoric Society of America (RSA). Ironically, it was the first rhetoric or composition-focused conference I’ve attended and the last conference of any sort I’ll attend (gulp) before I go on the job market this fall.

Eeep! No, I’m ok. I’m alright. I swear.

Anyway, one of the most interesting panels I attended at RSA was ostensibly about the future of journals in our field. I took this to mean there would be a discussion about the journal model more broadly, about restricted vs. open access, etc.

Yeah, no.

Instead, the panel featured the editors of three of the BFD journals in rhet/comp riffing on their roles as editors, the kinds of submissions they receive and why they do or do not suck, and the messy nature of the review process. Not what I expected, no, but fascinating all the same.

For me, one of the most striking moments was when Jim Jasinski, the editor of Rhetorical Studies Quarterly, described his role in this way:

Editors are there to help writers figure out what they’ve got.

YES. Exactly!

The best editors I’ve had a chance to work with have been able to do precisely that: to peer into the abyss of a messy first draft, pick out the ideas worth exploring, and make concrete suggestions as how I might make the most of what I’ve got. This is also what I see myself doing (what I try to do) as a teacher when I ask my students to write: to read their drafts with questions like what have they got here? where are they trying to go? how can I help them get there? in mind.

Continue reading “Writing is Hard(ly Something You Should Be Doing Alone)”

3 Reasons I Love to Teach

It’s the end of the term here this week; another semester, another school year, come to a close, one that I was happy to see end. That said, I was reminded this week why I love teaching. To wit:

1) The perfectionist student in my composition class who finally had enough faith in herself and her ideas that she brought a messy, working, fantastically drafty draft of her paper to our peer review workshop–something that she wouldn’t (couldn’t) have done six weeks ago.

2) A former student from my Literature, Medicine, and Culture class who thanked me for advising them to begin a new essay by sitting down and just writing for an hour. That is: to write first, and then go back and deal with what’s on the page, rather than trying to get it “right” the first time. “It’s really helped,” he told me, “in more than one of my classes this term”–and with the personal statement he’s writing for med school.

3) Another student from Lit, Med, and Culture who’s continued on her own to pursue one of the ideas we discussed in class (that of narrative medicine) because she’s freaking annoyed and yet intrigued by it, by what she sees as the dissonance between the concept and its practical implementation. She told me: “Your class was one that left the impression on me that it’s important to keep asking questions and learn more beyond the classroom.”

I sat down, I’ll admit, to write a post about a frustrating discussion I had with a senior faculty person this week about how to respond to student writing. But then my students, bless them, redirected my energies and reminded me what’s far more important: them.

Truly, one of the strange things about teaching is that, at some level, you don’t usually get to see the fruits (or not) of your labors, of your 16-week long collaboration with your students. But, then, sometimes? You do.

Who Has the Right to Talk About (Teaching) Writing?

In the last few days, there’s been some really interesting meta kerfluffle over Rebecca Schuman’s “The End of the College Essay,” which you may recall I flipped some tables over about earlier this week. By now, we’ve reached the stage in the Schuman-fueled fallout where we’re talking more about the conversation that we’re having about the essay than about the content of said essay itself.

And one of the key themes that’s arise from this meta!talk is this: who in academia, exactly, has the right to talk about the teaching of writing?

This discursive tide reached a new peak today with the publication of a post titled “An Open Letter in Defense of Rebecca Schuman” on the ProfHacker blog, one that’s hosted on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website. For readers who dwell outside of academia, CHE is one of the most reputable and widely-read sites within the university world; posting the letter within the in body of that site = how many hits?

Exactly.

Now, depending upon your perspective, this letter–to which any interested party can affix their name via change.org–does one of two things:

Continue reading “Who Has the Right to Talk About (Teaching) Writing?”

What Do You Value?

Hey, check this out: according to this article, we shouldn’t be forcing students to write essay in “required” humanities courses because, you know. Students are bad writers, and profs hate reading bad writing. And, anyway, students’ll just plagiarize anyway. And the ones that like writing will write anyway, so. It’s totally fine.

Now I know I’m just a grad student with a mere four years of teaching experience, and I’m not saying that I know what the hell I’m doing, but look. This is bullshit.

Any universalist argument gets my goat up because a) they’re easy to make and b) they’re impossible to implement. Which the writer knows. Which makes it an easy argument to make because hey, nobody’s gonna do it anyway, so what the fuck?

But the one in this piece, Rebecca Schuman’s “The End of the College Essay,” really sticks in my craw–despite the fact that Schuman is trying to be a bit more careful than the headline suggests.

Continue reading “What Do You Value?”

Real Ugly Like


I am caught up this week in the final, insistant rush that the end of each semester brings, each with its own particular kind of hysteria. This term, the due dates for my final projects are nicely spread out, which is allowing me [in theory] to give myself over to each of them in turn. It’s kind of nice, actually.

Though as Friday’s deadline–the first of two–begins to loom, I’m trying to shake free of the niceness and push myself more aggressively into the Cult of Done, so I can move quickly to the next project, which is due next Wednesday.

And then, of course, my students’ work lies in wait at the end of the tunnel, waiting for assessments that are due next Friday.

So another week or so of this, of this semester, of this first year of a PhD program. And then summer vacation!

But until then, I think I’ll stick to more immediate terms: today, tomorrow, and the next. Otherwise? Things might be looking real ugly-like.