I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Give You That “A.”


So my students are working on compare/contrast essays right now. What I’m asking them to do is freaking difficult: find two articles related to their [self-selected] research topic that address the same issue and craft a four-page compare/contrast essay in which they put the two pieces into conversation with each other.

The research part, as usual, is what’s kicked many of them in the ass. And that’s as it should be. Research is HARD. Ok, doing research that uncovers material you can actually use is hard; finding irrelevant crap is easy.

What’s struck me this time is how many students are obsessed with avoiding “bias.” For them, though, “bias” seems to mean having any sort of opinion at all, which, as I try to explain to them, is not humanly possible. There’s a difference, I say, I preach, I suggest, between expressing an uninformed opinion that’s not based on any sort of evidence and in asserting a position in such a way as to ignore any other takes on that issue. In selecting data, in conducting a close reading, in analyzing a text, I tell them, you ARE taking a stance, presenting an argument, but that doesn’t mean that you are biased.

I guess I’m wondering: where does this idea come from, this notion that bias is bad, that “unbiased” is a legitimate and desirable state of being? I’m reminded of a comment that Mike W. Barr made in one of his letter columns in his comic, The Outsiders: “A writer who doesn’t have opinons isn’t writing stories, he’s making pablum” ( The Outsiders 4,  Feb., 1986).

Now, granted, Outsiders is a comic and not a newspaper article or research paper, but Barr’s point cuts to the heart of the issue here: writing is done by people. Period. Not by HAL 9000 or Gerty or Jarvis, but by people. Articles like this one, coupled with my students’ attitude towards bias, suggest that there’s a real desire among some in our society to eliminate the tempramental human from the act of writing. To flatten and silence and eliminate all the noise from “academic” texts, all in the name of the great Straw Man: clarity.

Which is complete and utter bollocks.

But it may explain why there’s a market for a computer program that can grade–not assess, or comment on, or respond to, but grade–writing, especially student writing, which is, in my experience, often the most messily and awesomely human of them all.

Taking Pleasure In The Here and Now

The space from which I write, or: how I spent my spring break.

I’m working on a paper for school in which I’m tangling with two scholars’ notions of “good” writing, or what elements or actions or characteristics of writing should be valued, and why.

Tripping through their definitions, their contradictions, their idealism has gotten me wondering, again, about how writing–good or otherwise–can be taught.

Indeed, the more experience that I have in teaching writing, the more I am convinced that writing can’t be taught. Not in a single course, or semester, or even a school year. Rather, I think writing is an accumulation, a collection of ideas or imprints or gestures that build up in the mind over time like shells on the shore that get honed by the waves and bleached by the sun and experience, uncovered and buried and swept away as needed. Refashioned, again and again, piece by piece, instructor by instructor, book by book, blog post by blog post.

Writing defies testing, defies concretization. Deconstruction teaches us that meaning is not fixed; that the world is text; that the writer cannot hope to master language and its infinities of meanings, only to tangle, to temporarily tame, the words with which we are surrounded. So why do we pretend that writing is an act, a series of performative moves, even, that can be “taught” as if they were a universal constant? As if there were agreement over the unstickiness of language and meaning? As if we can even agree over what we mean by “writing.”

People ask me: how did you learn how to write? And I say: I read. Which some writers think is a total fucking copout, a justification for NOT writing. An excuse for why you haven’t written. Okay, I can see that. Maybe it is, sometimes.

I can speak only for myself, then: reading taught me how to write. But it was up to me to actually, you know, write. To do something with that knowledge. Intellectually understanding how words can fit together, what they can do in certain combinations, is all well and good, was all well and good, for me. Even got me to a point where I could “teach” other people how to write. Like painting a wall, or something; where to put the masking tape, how to position the ladder, what kind of brush to use and when.

But it wasn’t until I started writing regularly, for myself and not simply in response to [or in order to resist] an academic assignment or prompt that I started to do writing rather than just talk about it, teach it, dissect it.

So maybe it’s not fair to say that it’s the experience of teaching writing that’s made me question if and how “writing” can be taught. Maybe it’s being a writer. And I don’t ascribe to the romantic Platonic notion of writing being some super-secret gift from the Almighty or something.

But.

But writing isn’t math. It can’t be boiled down to formulas or prescriptions or balanced equations, no matter how often I tell my students that one can figure out what makes a piece work or what undermines its effectiveness. There’s no magic bullet for writing, period. Probably for a lot of other shit, too, but writing’s the only thing I know anything about.

So I don’t acribe any mystical powers to myself, ok? But still, I’m a “good” writer. A distinct one. One with a distinctive voice, anyway, in a couple of different genres. But how did that happen? Where did it come from? And not all of my readers dig the way that I write, the way that my characters–including my academic self–sound; but, by now, I’ve had positive responses from a wide enough variety of readers to buy into my own hype, a little. Temporarily, at least.

My composition theory professor once asked us–aspiring composition teachers all–if we thought that one had to be a “good” writer in order to effectively teach writing. Though she did not say it then–let us argue it out amongst ourselves instead–her answer? Is yes. It was part of the reason that she encouraged me to teach composition: because she thought I was a “good” writer.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that I don’t understand, yet, how that is supposed to translate into the classroom. For the most part, I don’t introduce my students to my writing; this piece, this term, being the rare exception. The only writing of mine to which they are regularly exposed are my comments on their own work. And especially given what I do write, both as a scholar and as a fan, I’m reluctant to even talk about my own writing too much to my kids. If they ask, I’ll tell; otherwise, I’m still squidgy about talking about slash fic with freshmen who are an awesome combination of world-weary and wide-eyed innocents, sometimes.

And yet, as a new-old friend said to me recently: I read your writing because otherwise, how will I know you? Which, exactly. I would agree. So since my students don’t read my writing–nor am I arguing that they should, I don’t think–how does me as a writer get translated into me as an instructor?

Whatever sustained joy I find in writing is newly grown; barely nine months old, yet. And I know, as I ask my students to write multiple drafts, to revise, to talk with others about their writing, that, for many of them–like me–these are motions to be gone through, rhetorical moves to be performed, but, for the moment, they find no value in them, other than they must be done. I’ve been in school–even just graduate school–for a loooong time. I’ve written a lot of shit. Some of it good, some meh, some of it I even liked. But I didn’t have a “writing process”–revise: I didn’t have a stack of writing processes from which to choose–until I started writing for myself. Until I started writing fan fic.

Some would argue, I think, that I am able to craft said processes because I’ve been “trained” in the Writing As A Process model. That the instruction I offer my kids might not be useful to them now, but it will be “in the future.” At some point. Maybe.

But I would say: that’s not good enough. I want to teach them something they can take pleasure in now, that they can have fun with now, that they can re-make for their own purposes now, not in some distant pretend future which may or may not come to pass. Why can’t writing be good to them, for them, in the moment? Because if Godot ain’t coming today, who’s to say that he’ll come on any other tomorrow?

Writing, now, brings me so much joy that I get a little stupid about it, sometimes. As evidenced by this post, perhaps, if given the chance, I will go on and on about my processes, the different ways in which my stories came to be, how I fought them, how they seduced me back to the keyboard, etc.  Because, to me, it’s a freaking miracle. It’s like the baby Jesus springing to life on the screen sometimes; that is, when I look up after an hour and there’s a little fic there, done, completed by me, apparently, it’s like, wow. Where in the hell did that come from?

I used to be really weird about reading my own writing. As in, I wouldn’t, once it was turned in. I’d read any comments that I received, but I’d never look back over the piece as a whole. But now? I read all my stuff multiple times, once it’s “done.” The fic especially, but even my academic pieces. Ok, my papers, I still don’t really read carefully until after I’ve gotten them back from the prof, but my presentations? My research? Hell yeah, I read that stuff. Because I’m good with it, I’m ok with what’s on the page. I take some pleasure in seeing how it works, what didn’t, and why. I genuinely like writing, damn it.

So I want to find a way to bring that into my classroom, that love of practice. But I practice writing, for the most part, on my own terms. Because I want to. Because I enjoy it. My kids, however, aren’t in the same boat, so it’s not as simple, I don’t think, as bringing my practices themselves into the classroom.

Still, I have to acknowledge that, as Della Pollock suggests in her essay “Performing Writing,” “performance, as practice…is never fully in control of its effects” (80). And what is teaching, ultimately, if not a performance? So no matter how much energy I devote to puzzling my way out of this rhetorical paper bag, I cannot claim full control over the effects of my teaching, of my time in the classroom. And that’s ok. I’ve accepted that.

But still. I want my kids–if not all, at least some–to one day [stupid future!] find the love and joy and pleasure in writing that I have, finally, after all these years. I don’t want to create clones of myself–I’m a goddamn mess!–but I do want to open as many door as I can for them, give them as many chances to monkey around in my classroom while they can. And as wishing cannot make it so, I’ve no choice but to keep playing around, to keep testing, rearranging, revising, rewriting in my classes as I do on the page, on the screen.

So for all that angst about “how can we teach writing?,” I end up writing myself back into this job, this calling, into those awesome five hours a week I get to spend in the classroom with my students. There are some traps, I suppose, from which we do not wish to escape.

Freedom’s just another word for liberal dogmatic thought

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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Earlier this week, President Obama called once again for all American children to have the opportunity to attend college. This isn’t a new idea for him; it’s one he’s touted in some form since his 2008 campaign, but one to which he’s returned repeatedly since last month’s State of the Union address.

For Obama–for a hell of a lot of other people–education offers freedom.

Unfortunately, in the world where Rick Santorum spins, a world where other people’s sex lives pose a clear and present danger to his own, freedom = slavery to “liberal” ideology, to thoughts that are critical of this country, her leaders, her practices. In a speech in Michigan on Friday, Santorum told an enthusiastic [geriatric] audience that:

President Obama once said that he wants everyone in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor. That’s why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.

Yes, that’s right: America needs some of its children not to go to college so that those children can “work hard every day”–which, apparently, people with college degrees–people like Santorum!–do not do. Yup. We just sit around not fixing shit and watching the world go to hell as we stare at our degrees and drink pinot and sing the Marseilles. Man, Rick: you nailed it.

But let’s be clear: for the Vest, giving all Americans–read: black, white, latino, asian, rich, poor, southern, northern, first-generation, seventh generation, christian, muslim, atheist, jew, woman, man, gay, hetero, transgender, bi–the same chance to access higher education is akin to packing these young minds into the rhetorical Amistad and shipping them off to Marxistville. Learning = indoctrination in what Santorum sees as multicultural bullshit, gender equality, and the notion that no idea should be swallowed hook, line, and sinker without critical reflection and inquiry.

You fear ideas, man? You fear exposure to ideas? What does that say about the strength of your own convictions? Oh, that’s right: we’re not talking about what you believe–for you, it’s a given that those ideas are “correct,” grounded in your god’s law or whatever. For you, any idea that doesn’t match your Opus Dei-inscribed view of life, the universe, and everything is “liberal” and therefore dangerous and wrong.

Right.

Also, Rick, my love, you have a very strange understanding of how “teaching” works. I can assure you, as one of those “liberal” professors for whom you express so much contempt, that exposing my students to ideas, to perspectives that are unlike their own, does not automatically cause them to adopt those ideas. Far from it. Students are not obedient little sponges, darlin’–they come in just as resistant, just as married to the ideas they consider their own as any adult. If anything, I think, they are a weird paradox at 18, 19 years old: on the one hand, they’re open and pliant and more receptive to experience than ever before. But on the other, they recognize that openness, this newfound desire to be more than they are and they resist that, push back against their own wills with everything they’ve got; not all the time, not in every instance, but often enough so that their own identity–the one they’ve spend their adolescence and late teen years constructing carefully, so carefully–is not corrupted.

They’re smart, Rick; they’re so much fucking smarter than you give them credit for. And yeah, sometimes they change their minds but they’re the ones that do the changing, not me or any of my colleagues [not all of whom are the liberal bastions of idiomatic thought you seem to imagine].

And that’s what you’re really afraid of, isn’t it, Rick? Of your kids changing their own minds. Having thoughts that you didn’t plant in there with the spade of the Bible. It’s called growing up, man: it’s called becoming a human being. It has less to do with what job the kids end up getting, whether they’re on Wall Street or own a business on Main Street or care for kids with cancer or create their own comic series. It has much more to do with the way that the kids see the world, the epistemology that they fashion for themselves to help them make sense of their own existence and I know I’ve lost you now, baby, because I used the word “epistemology” and if you’re not careful, I’ll point right back to Foucault and that would REALLY piss you off, wouldn’t it, me citing the ideas of a gay French dude, right?

So, Rick, let me bring it back to a place that maybe you can understand, one where you won’t be smelling poppers and dreaming of Donna Summer as you read my text. I used to work for an amazing woman, a university president [stay with me, Vest: take a deep breath] who didn’t just believe that, as our university’s slogan said, “Education Offers Freedom,” she embodied this ideal. Both of her parents and her grandparents: all college graduates. Her parents: both teachers who moved from Chicago back to the South in the 1950s, going back to their family’s roots–to the roots of slavery–to teach those who hadn’t gotten out, not yet. She and her husband: both teachers early in their careers. She: president of a for-profit university [hey, you like that idea, right?] with an on-campus presence that encouraged students, faculty, and staff alike to come to her with concerns, questions, comments. She embodied the potential of education in her DNA, in her everyday actions, and in the genuine love and concern she felt for all of the students, even those she met only in passing, or only on graduation day when she handed them their diploma.

Rick, this woman’s life illustrates the truth of the axiom that education can offer freedom: from poverty, from circumstance, from history, and yes, from ignorance, from fear, from derision. But the key word here is CAN; education isn’t a magic bullet, it’s not the universal means of escape from the dominant ideology. It’s a tool, man, a tool to which all those who want it should have access. This is what the President means when he says that everyone should be able to go to college: everyone should have the chance to see if education is the key to their lock, an answer–never the only answer–to some of their questions.

Your fear precedes you, sir. Your desire to consign others to ignorance all in the name of “freedom” is repugnant and will only hasten your obsolesce as a political and cultural force.

How to write without fear

Three reasons why I love being a writer (scholarly edition):

1.  I read a very personal piece of my writing–this one–to one of my writing classes. I’ve never introduced my work to my students like that before, but I wanted to establish for them that they can take chances in my classroom. That it’s ok to do so. Hell, that they need to.

In my other section, two students read their very personal pieces to their classmates, and it was awesome. Just great. But the second section–which is mostly women–was more reluctant. So I went for it. And it seems to have gone well; it seems to have cracked things open a bit for a few students in particular, based on their feedback, and for the room as a whole.

But damn, I’d forgotten what that’s like–to be in front of an audience and have them right there with you, right there in the palm of your hand. It was—intoxicating. And not as scary as it might have been, once.

We shall see how it shakes out–which is my formal way of saying, it was a huge fucking chance and part of me still thinks I’ll get slapped for it and part of me is like, hell yes, I’m awesome.

2. I had a paper accepted at a conference in Zurich next fall. HOLY CRAP! This is terrifying on the one hand–haven’t written said paper! How do I say “Wincest” in German?–and so fan-fucking-tastic on the other. I’m trying to enjoy the giddy stage while it lasts. Now I just need to write the damn thing.

3. And this–this one is the best. One of my colleagues is teaching a student who was in my class last term. She asked them to craft “writing histories” on the first day. My former student called me out by name and said:

“She taught me how to write fearlessly.”

Which is pretty damn perfect and makes me a little teary and damn, I have the greatest job in the world.

Thanks, 2011, for Hasan Elahi.

2011 has given me a lot of awesome things. This is one of them.

Hasan Elahi and “Tracking Transience”

So.

Hasan Elahi is an artist and a teacher. The FBI decided that he also looked like a terrorist because, you know, he was flying into Detroit from Florida. And traveling to lots of other places. And he looks kinda of “Muslim.” This was enough for our fine boys and girls and blue to spend nine months questioning Elahi, polygraphing him repeatedly, and going through his stuff. Because, again, internationally known installation artist is a perfect cover for a would-be terrorist.

Once the FBI got bored and moved on to harass someone else, Elahi decided to fight back. With art.

As he describes in his awesome TED talk, Elahi created a website–which eventually became “Tracking Transience“–upon which he posts detailed, micro-level information about his life. What he eats. What gas stations he goes to. Where he sleeps. What flights he takes, where, and when. What he spends his money on. Using photos, Google Earth, and direct links to his bank account, the TT site lets any visitor determine Elahi’s specific location at anytime and trace his movements and actions in the past.

The trick is that you can’t navigate the site in a logical way. It’s not designed that way. Rather, you have to wade through all of these individual pieces of data–photos, coordinates, spending information–and fashion some kind of meaning out of it yourself. There’s no narrative thread for you to follow; you have to make one for yourself, even as you navigate pages full of time-stamped, anonymous, specific, colorful, super-specific information.

For me, Elahi’s work is a gift from 2011 because it suggests to me that seeing isn’t the same thing as knowing. When Elahi was picked up by the FBI, it was simply because they saw individual pieces of data in his life–what he looked like, where he’d been, how frequently he’d travelled–and, from that, fashioned the narrative of Potential Terrorist. The FBI didn’t know him, nor was that the purpose of their investigation. Rather, they needed to be convinced that what they were seeing didn’t mean what they assumed that it did; that the meaning they’d made from it was– misguided, shall we say.

So here’s the thing: TT tells me that, no matter how intrusive the government is into my life, how much I post or don’t post on Facebook, on my blog, write in any sort of public space (Blackwatch Plaid!), it’s fucking hard to know someone just from the ephemera of their life. What websites I visit, or what books I buy, or what stories I write, or what I buy at Kroger: ultimately, these tiny pieces of information won’t tell you a damn thing about me. There’s no master narrative for anyone to follow about my life, and it’s this lack of stability that a) makes postmodernism awesome and b) gives the feds or the cops or whoever the wiggle room to make up whatever kind of story they want to about you. So, you know, pluses and minuses.

I post the hell out of my slash fic. I say what I actually think on Facebook, in front of my profs, in front of my students. Actions always hold the potential for consequences, but that need not be a negative thing, I think. Dude, I’m tired of watching every word, every thought, every glance because, let’s face it: I have no poker face.

Thanks, 2011, for sending Elahi and TT my way, for reminding me that being seen isn’t the same as being known, that most people aren’t paying that much attention to you, anyway, even if the NSA and the Office of the President visit your online art installation. Which? If I find out Joe Biden has cruised past this site, I will have new hope for the future of this country. And then I’ll email Jill and let her know what he’s been up to.

Canon fodder (updated)

One of my favorite ongoing debates within slash is whether K/S is “canon” or not. There seems to be a real desire among some slashers (neatly summed up in the image above) for Kirk and Spock’s romantic relationship to be read as part of Star Trek canon: an immutable, irrefutable “fact” about the ST universe, like dilithium crystals or McCoy’s Southern accent.

Dude!–this argument goes–it’s clearly evident in the text (of canon) that Kirk and Spock totally love each other and/or totally had a complicated and acrobatic sexual relationship. On the one hand, then, K/S is already canon in these slashers’ minds; on the other, only Paramount (who still owns ST, right?) can make K/S “official” (and thus legitimate? Easier to talk about with friends and family? Facilitating slashers’ ability to come out of the textual/sexual closet, as it were? I don’t know).

This desire is complicated, I think, by the presence of Star Trek (2009), which reboots Kirk and Spock and makes an overt case for Spock’s heterosexuality (or penchant for humans, depending upon your perspective). However, the movie also recognizes the most important material object of the original Star Trek–Spock’s body–and carefully retains and protects that object and transports it safely to the new 23rd century. (I went on about Spock’s body-as-object in an earlier post here.)

[The question of K/S in the 2009 new-verse is an interesting one that I need to work with further–as a researcher. As a reader, I don’t buy 2009 K/S, but that’s a long story that has as much to do with where I went to college as my opinions on the film.] Continue reading “Canon fodder (updated)”

*Work in progress v.1

First in a series of me trying to echo-locate myself within the rhetoric/writing studies world, via an ongoing assignment for a class I’m taking. I’ve cleaned up some of the spelling, but note that I wrote most of this with my eyes closed. Really.

The version that I’m turning in is only a bit more constructed than this; but, for the sake of the process, I’m leaving this raw version up here.

notion of consensus: of knowledge being a temporarily agreement between a group of peers (temporarily and culturally dependent; able to shift over time)

Miller quotes a technical writing textbook who describes technical writing as having “one certain clear purpose: to convey information and ideas accurately and efficiently” (qtd. 611). For another, “language is utilitarian, emphasizing exactness rather than elegance…technical writing is direct and to the point” (qtd 611). In my experience, this is how many of my colleagues teach writing–all writing–as concrete, objective, and direct: a distillation of what is irrefutable into a set of words and phrases that is immutable, fixed, and certain. They ache for their students to produce texts that are “clear” (a term I don’t understand), “concise,” and specific: texts that follow form, rhetorical strategies, and word choices that are defined by the instructors’ sense of identity as professionals, of what is “real and true” about being a teacher of composition (Therborn, qtd. Berlin 479). Continue reading “*Work in progress v.1”

“While sucky at times overall better prepared me.”


So this was a rough semester for me. Coming off of a term in which I taught four courses, teaching just one was bizarre, and to be honest: I was bored. I was afraid that I’d let some of that boredom seep into my teaching; I didn’t feel as responsive, or as creative, or as engaged with this class as I did with their peers in the fall.

In addition, the dynamic in the classroom was a bit odd: this collection of students was quite heterogeneous in terms of both ability and maturity. Finally, I audibled toward the end of the semester and asked the students to write a manifesto, rather than a research paper. Since I’d never given the assignment before, I asked the students to play a big role in defining the assignment and determining the requirements. This was a risk, and I wasn’t sure how it would play out. I’m looking forward to reading the second drafts of their manifestos next week.

To be fair, I come to the end of every semester utterly uncertain of my own success as an instructor. Still, coming to the end of this term, I was even more uncertain than usual.

So it was with some trepidation that I sat down this week to read my students’ anonymous evaluations of this course. These are evals that I’ve created as a supplement to the formal evals that the college asks the students to complete at midterm. You can see a copy of the course evaluation sheet that I created here.

It’s always fascinating to me to see what students think they’ve taken–for good or ill–from the course. I won’t lie, though: it’s usually easier to read evals when the students are saying either nice things about you, or when they criticize parts of the course that you also thought needed work.

Overall, the feedback that the students gave me this semester was great–some gave truly constructive criticism and others offered kudos that suggest that what I’m trying to do in the classroom is coming through to them, that they’re getting something positive from the course.

Here are all of the responses that I received to three of the eval questions. Most are in random order. My responses/questions are in italics.

Question 7: As an instructor, what did I do that was most helpful to you? Why did you find it helpful?

Responding to student writing

I’ve been struggling to read 50 of my students’ piece of writing today. I love working with their writing, but the sheer volume (and the ridiculously short turnaround window that I created for myself) has been getting me down.

Then I read a piece that challenged me–not because it’s terrible but because the writer is expressing real pain/confusion/sadness in the piece, coupled with a sense of determination to move past those emotions. The absences speak as loudly as what’s on the page. It’s not a cry for help–it’s more of a acknowledgment of a self-inflicted burden. I’m a bit of loss at the moment as to how to respond. But that’s a good thing–it’s made me come off of automatic marking mode and really think about what kinds of comments to make to the student. It’s reminded me why this is the best job I’ve ever had: because it’s the hardest.