English literature and composition

Essay on why conservatives hate English courses

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the main thing conservatives learn in college English classes is how to complain about college English classes.

Shortly before his recent and untimely death, conservative entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart reminisced about the English and American studies classes he took as an undergraduate in the late '80s and early '90s. Those classes, he said in an interview with the National Review Online, were representative of "any humanities department, USA." Going into them, he had expected to read "the Founding Fathers" along with authors like "Mark Twain": stuff he assumed would offer a 'benign approach to the American experience." But he was shocked, shocked, that his courses did not offer that "benign approach."

Now, it’s not clear what parts of Mark Twain that Breitbart expected to be "benign." His ruthless critiques of the slave system in Pudd’nhead Wilson? His disgust with organized religion in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? His vocal opposition to American foreign policy as vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League? It seems possible Breitbart accidentally confused Mark Twain the guy with Mark Twain the boat, at Disneyland. (Which is, admittedly, a pretty benign pleasure cruise.)

But the real problem, Breitbart continued, was that he "was hearing the words 'deconstruction' and 'semiotics' a bit too many times." He eventually concluded English classes weren’t really English classes. Instead, they were classes in — ominous pause — "cultural Marxist theory."

Dissatisfaction with college English classes has long held a special place in the conservative imagination. In perhaps the earliest modern example, William F. Buckley Jr. devoted his first book to criticizing liberal orthodoxy at Yale University in the late 1940s. Because "the field of English literature and poetry" was one in which “values are heavily involved,” he declared, the English classroom was especially prone to “value-inculcation.” (Needless to say, he didn’t seem to think it inculcated good values.)

Since then, a number of right-leaning writers haven’t been able to resist the urge to generalize, to speculate about what goes on, in English classes. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has claimed that in English classes, the "study of literature as an art form" has been entirely replaced by "Theory," presumably of the "cultural Marxist" variety. Michael Ellsberg thinks that the type of writing taught in an English class is so "formulaic" that "passable versions of it can be produced automatically by a computer program." Similarly, Judith Halberstam, an English professor who wouldn’t otherwise agree with Breitbart about anything, has declared that English professors aren’t really "doing" English anymore. Bruce Fleming also thinks that college English classes aren’t really teaching English, just a parade of isms -- "structuralism, deconstruction, Foucauldianism, and multiculturalism" — that distract from a different, and somehow more authentic, program of study.

The more theatrical of these Cassandras try to link what they assume is the content of an English class to an overall decline in English as a college major.  William M. Chace, former president of Emory and Wesleyan, attributes a decline in the number of English majors to changes in the content of the English classroom. "No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature," he declares. Like Breitbart, Chace thinks the problem is that English professors just aren’t doing English anymore. Instead of "English or American literature," he writes, classes are now filled with non-literary subjects like "comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust." (Because everyone knows survivors of the Holocaust never wrote literature. Take that, Elie Wiesel, you cheap hack!)

It's true that the percentage of undergraduates majoring in English has declined over the last 40 years. Chace makes much of the fact that English majors composed 7.6 percent of the undergraduate population in 1971, and only 3.9 percent in 2004 — a decline of nearly 50 percent. But in fact, English’s current popularity is actually closer to its historical norm now than it was 30 years ago. It’s the early 1970s that were the anomaly, not today.

All American universities expanded dramatically in the aftermath of World War II. From 1945 to 1975, undergraduate enrollments increased by almost 500 percent. This growth was unprecedented, but also unrepeatable. In the grand scheme of things, though, it was just a temporary blip. Degrees in all of the liberal arts — not just English — declined from 1900 to 1945, then grew from 1945 to about 1973, and then began to decline again.

So it’s simply not true that curricular changes caused a decline in the popularity of English as a major. After all, the percentage of mathematics degrees fell over the same period by about 66 percent. And they don’t teach much "cultural Marxist theory" in math courses. (Probably.)

But what’s interesting about this latest flock of lit-crit Chicken Littles is not that they’re saying anything that’s actually true, but that people think it could be true.

There are at least two things going on here. The conservative dislike for English classes depends on ill-informed generalizations about the day-to-day business of the English classroom. But it also depends on an assumption that the day-to-day business of the profession of English is somehow not the business of the members of that profession.

To put it another way, a guy like Andrew Breitbart would never have thought to assume he knows what happens in all of the hundreds of classes nationwide in, say, cardiac surgery. And he would never have tried to inform a professor of surgery about the proper content of a course in surgery. Yet he had and others have no problem confidently stating that they know what happens in all English classes, and that they also know what should happen.

The first of these critiques — that all English classes, everywhere, are doing a particular thing uniformly — is the hardest to rebut, mostly because it's such an insane critique in the first place. There are nearly 2,400 four-year colleges and universities in America, and the vast majority of them offer some sort of education in English language and literature. That means there are tens of thousands of English courses every year. I don’t know what goes on in all those classes any more than Breitbart did or anyone else does. But I will say that their generalizations don’t ring true in the slightest.

Every English literature class I have ever taken, taught, or observed has spent the vast majority of its time on exactly what all these writers claim is missing: the study of literature. In my experience, English classes do pretty much what they’ve always done. Students read literature closely, and then talk about how it works and what it means. The courses I teach in American literature today contain pretty much the same authors you would have expected 20 or 30 years ago: Twain, Emerson, Dickinson, Douglass, Melville, Wharton, and so on. Of course, people teach some newer authors, too (Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo tend to show up often), and some authors are not taught quite as frequently (D.H. Lawrence, for instance), but English departments are not eternal guardians of a frozen literary heritage. They change a little over time, sure, but they still do what you’d expect.

For that matter, Breitbart’s English departments did pretty much what you’d expect, too. He had to take two semesters of American literature at Tulane University, and as Mark Howard and Alexander Zaitchik have reported, students in those courses were assigned to read Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Hawthorne, Stowe, and so on.  Not much "cultural Marxist theory," in other words.

I'd venture to guess that this basic classroom focus on individual literary works is far more common than not. If you like, you can check for yourself. Just type "English literature syllabus site:.edu" into Google, without the quotation marks, and see what people around the country are teaching in their English classes.

But this still leaves the other problem, about who determines the proper content of a college classroom. Even if English professors were to stop teaching Shakespeare, or start teaching nothing but “cultural Marxist theory” (whatever that is), those changes would nevertheless be a result of the normal practices of the profession of English. If such a thing were ever to happen, it would be because new knowledge had been formed, new books and articles written, new best practices established. This does not mean that English is an intellectually bankrupt profession, but rather simply that it is a profession, and a profession is defined by the decisions of its members.

When conservatives declare that English classes don’t teach literature anymore, what they’re really trying to do is deprofessionalize the profession of college-level English. In a profession, such as law or medicine or academia, the members of that profession have the ultimate verdict on its practices, credentialing process, and knowledge base. Cardiac surgeons — and not conservative commentators, journalists, or the government — have the final say over the norms and practices of cardiac surgery. Finance professors have the final say over the norms and practices of the academic study of finance.

And English professors have the final say about the content of a college English class. For someone to pretend otherwise, even if that someone is an English professor, is to suggest that an English class somehow exists apart from the practices of the English professors teaching that class. You can't complain about English professors not teaching real English because what English professors teach is real English — even if you think it shouldn’t be.

So people don’t need to be worried that we’re witnessing the "death of English" as a result of English professors not teaching literature. First of all, it's not true.  English majors still read Shakespeare, Twain, Emerson, Austen, Milton, and all the rest.

But even if such a thing were true, the sky still wouldn’t be falling, simply because of basic professional norms. After all, no one worries that professors of medicine aren’t teaching students how to use leeches like they did in the Middle Ages.

But one thing these sorts of attacks on the content of the English classroom tell us is that English, far from being irrelevant, apparently matters a lot to conservatives. Decades after the "culture wars" of the 1980s, conservatives and commentators of all stripes are still using the English classroom as a convenient shorthand for American universities as a whole.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important to do so honestly. English departments still teach all the stuff you remember them teaching. But English departments are also composed of members of the profession of academic English, and professions are, like it or not, self-regulating.

After all, if someone like Andrew Breitbart can’t tell a dentist he should pull your teeth, then he also shouldn’t tell English professors they should teach The Fountainhead. 

Stephen J. Mexal is assistant professor in the department of English, comparative literature, and linguistics at California State University at Fullerton.

Retirement party etiquette for faculty at U of All People (essay)

At U of All People, as one of our sociologists, Professor Q. A. Wagstaff, once put it, “Faculty and staff eventually leave either vertically or horizontally.” As it happens, Wagstaff left with his own faculties intact, though the same cannot be said for the sociology faculty, which spent the next five years trying to regain the hiring slot. In any event, since many of our professors got their jobs in the late '60s, when all you had to do for a tenure-track position was cough in the right direction, more than a few are beginning to feel that it’s time to move on.

Sometimes poor health or a desire to travel motivates the decision. More commonly, as Professor Kahn Federitz in the history department noted, “The thought of facing one more set of student essays on the Civil War makes me want to puke.” For whatever reason, in the last few months, not a week has gone by without a retirement party. Professor Wagstaff, operating from a think tank of his own devising in his basement, has even drawn up a formula for these events, soon to be published in American Sociological Review of American Sociology. Below are the necessary steps, only slightly embroidered.

1. Settle on a time inconvenient for everyone, including the retiree. 1:30 on a Wednesday, when everyone’s either teaching or at a meeting, is a popular slot. Procure a room, though the Men’s Studies Caucus has taken over the function area in the Frump Humanities Building, and Students for Nondemocratic Change are occupying the cafeteria again. End up in the faculty lounge, with its shaky sconces and once-wine-dark carpeting, where the lumpy beige couch could also use a retirement party.

2. Shake down the department for a gift, the gold watch of yore having long ago given way to an online gift certificate that expires within a year. Choose the most untrustworthy faculty member to make the collection, the professor who misses his office hours with no note on the door — but who perhaps was hired by the retiree and now, two decades later, wants to return the favor. Add some scuffle about who’s kicked in and how much. At the last minute, if worried that the gift is insignificant, add a small Lucite plaque.

3. Plan a reception by working with Scrump-Chess, the campus food service that both overcharges and underserves, yet, miraculous in these hard economic times, remains the university’s caterer. Plan several menus but end up with the same cookies and weak iced tea that have been served since 1980. Possibly provide a punch bowl with a ladle that slowly submerges in the sticky, over-sweet brew.

4. Tap a few aged colleagues to make speeches, usually ancient anecdotes that have lost all relevance to everyone but the few principals involved, one of whom is dead. “I remember when the department needed some extra students for Soc. 120, and the only way Tom and I could get some was by going to the dormitories at six a.m. and beating a gong we stole from the music department.” Such stories are more poignant than funny: they conjure up an era when people in academia seem to have enjoyed more freedom and had more fun than is possible nowadays.

5. Discuss what the retiree plans on doing after leaving the institution. In the old days, a standard response was, “Finish my book.” The unspoken but heartfelt response is “Not grade any more papers.” Usually included in the plans is a lengthy vacation -- Morocco? Kenya? -- at an unseasonable time of year -- “Max and I are packing in October.” The return home occasions a period of boredom and casting about, followed by a request to teach an occasional class at adjunct rates. After all, where else can the retiree find a captive audience for recycled anecdotes about sociology?

But meanwhile, a polite round of applause, please. And then, the rest of you, get back to whatever it is you still do.

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

Essay on teaching the importance of pleasure reading

In my Effective Reading Strategies class, we focus on managing the heavy and varied assigned reading loads college students often face. We consider the purpose for reading (discussion, papers, exams), the type of reading, and the best ways to approach each text. By the end of the semester, we’re ready for a change of pace.

All along, I’ve been stressing the importance of recreational reading that will increase students’ background knowledge. For example, our Science Library’s “Speaking of Science” blog contains links to The New York Times and Washington Post science sections, as well as local science-related news. Beyond that, I’ve been encouraging students to consider all types of pleasure reading, anything that might improve their reading fluency and stamina: books, magazines, websites, graphic novels, movie and book connections, and audio books. The Oberlin College Library has some great resources, including a recreational reading collection, and I’ve made students aware of this.

At the end of the semester, I’m mindful of the fact that students are heading off for a break, and I like to think they will make some extra time for pleasure reading. But they write reading autobiographies for me, so I know that some of them have never really enjoyed recreational reading and others have gotten out of the habit, often because of heavy assigned reading loads.

I’m not giving up, though. On the last day of class, I ask students to share the titles of their favorite books, in the hope that they’ll all leave with a list that contains at least a few titles of potential interest. The first time I did this, the list was replete with Great Books and modern classics. Few students seemed very enthusiastic about their choices.

After that, I made it clear that I wanted students to be honest. I encouraged them to think about a book they’d reread, or a recent favorite, rather than worrying about the import of the label “favorite.” To prove my point, I brought in my well-worn copies of Miss Rumphius and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and talked about why I like them so much. The lists became more eclectic. Standards like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby now mix with Harry Potter and the Twilight series. In addition, we get a sampling of some current fiction and nonfiction titles that represent a wide range of interests.

While it seems laughably obvious, I tell students that pleasure reading should be pleasant. Not that they should never challenge themselves, but that the books they choose should be ones they’ll embrace, not avoid. To set the right tone, we discuss The Reader’s Bill of Rights.  Now we’re ready to share titles, authors and thumbnail sketches of our choices.

Sometimes students are diffident: “It’s just a young adult book,” they’ll begin, only to have their choices spontaneously affirmed with “oohs” and “aahs” or “I loved that book, too.” Invariably, when we’ve gone around the room once, someone asks if it’s O.K. to mention another title, and other students jump in. Usually we run out of time before we run out of titles. One of the students, by prior arrangement, has typed the list into her laptop. She e-mails it to me and I send it to the entire class.

I have been pleasantly surprised that nearly everyone enters into these discussions enthusiastically. Even students who admit that they seldom, or never, read for pleasure, seem excited to have a list of approachable books to consider. I remind them that individual tastes vary widely and these are only suggestions.

It always feels like a successful way to end the class, and the semester. Recently, I received an e-mail from a student who took my class nine years ago. As always, his message included these two lines: “I’ve been reading ____ " and “What are you reading?”

Melissa Ballard is a study and reading strategies instructor at Oberlin College.

Essay on reworking the role of lectures

What comes to many of our students’ mind when they hear the word "rhetoric"? Specious arguments that are all glamor and little substance? Or perhaps stodgy old professors lecturing on and on about Cicero this and Quintilian that?

As a teacher of writing, and as a proponent of active learning, I have always disdained the traditional lecture. Yet, each term, for each course that I teach — from freshman "basic writing" courses, to graduate courses in teaching (and learning) college writing — I have always included a somewhat traditional introductory lecture on rhetoric. Sure, I give it all I’ve got in order to not only provide students the information I want them to use in their analytical work (content), but also to enact a living model of delivery (form) — what the greatest of the Greek orators, Demosthenes, declared the most important part of any speech. But this term I decided to shake things up a bit. I wondered what would happen if I turned over the reins of my prized rhetoric-lecture thoroughbred over to the hands and minds of the students to ride (deliver).

Like Mike Garver, I wanted to explode the way the lecture typically works rather than, like some of our colleagues in math, attempt to do away with lectures altogether. But I also wanted the students to have a much more active role in the actual generation and delivery of the lecture — a form of instruction I do believe can have merit. Would this experiment result in witnessing my tame lecture turn into a wild stampede? Or would (as I hoped) the students buck up, plant their feet firmly in her stirrups and, like Alexander with Bucephalus, make this beast their own?

The Game Plan

I began my plans by dividing the lecture into parts, depending on how many students were in each of my three classes: for my basic writing course of 10, I had them work in pairs; for my intermediate composition course of 21, teams of three; and for my graduate course of 14, also pairs. Each group was responsible for delivering their section of the lecture in about 10-15 minutes. I told them they had the choice of how they wanted to deliver it. As they buzzed, frenetically strategizing and planning together in class, I fielded their many questions, but tried not to give too much direction. I explained that I wanted them to work on this "problem-situation" with their partners as much as possible. I encouraged them to try not to make too much out of this, that this was a low-stakes assignment designed mostly to prepare them for later work.

The day of the presentation I began by explaining to students that the ancient Roman classroom (especially training in the carefully scaffolded progymnasmata as detailed by Quintilian) was a very interactive place where peer critique was the name of the game. So I let them know that the audience was going to actually be the most important part of the presentations. As an audience we would be critiquing the presenters. We decided that since I had provided most of the content, the assessment criteria would all hinge upon elements of delivery. We agreed upon three broad and interpretive categories: creativity, clarity, and energy. Each category would be scored on a scale of 0-to-5, 5 being the highest, for a possible total of 15 points overall.  

Judgment Day

I must say, I was beyond pleasantly surprised by what followed. The first class to go was my intermediate-level class in groups of three. The first group made a valiant effort to get our momentum off to a good start. They were strong in creativity but fumbled many of their lines, and overall stuck pretty close to the lecture script I had provided. Two of the presenters also delivered in somewhat monotone voices with relatively low energy. The second group, however, came ready to deliver. Michelle DelGuidice and Adam Aluise, as well as Alyssa Barnhart (all students' names used with permission) who was not in class this day but did contribute her ideas, creatively took Kenneth Burke’s concept of the five dramatistic terms — act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose — and applied them to a real-life event.  The act: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly, as Michelle would dark-comically interject) kills two people." The scene: "O.J. and Nicole Simpson’s home."  The agent: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly)." The agency: "He stabs them both to death." The purpose: "Jealousy." Each term came complete with an actual picture from the trial. All other groups fell somewhere on a continuum of these two types of presentations. Some really filtered the assignment and lecture notes through what Burke called their interpretive "termistic screens." Others stuck pretty close to the script, perhaps adding some sort of visual element via the projector or the dry-erase board.

The basic writing students also surprised me. The first group, made up of Jahnea Farquharson and Ashley Tremblay, delivered what I often call a "you had me at hello" presentation ("Jerry Maguire"). They had a PowerPoint wherein they delivered their section with significant visual addendums, they projected their voices loud and clear, and they spoke with passion and emphases. This first group even added some additional information involving Aristotle’s three types of rhetorical arguments: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Of course, the rest of the class knew that this first group had set the bar extremely high. I played the role of good facilitator and assured them that they would all do just fine and to have confidence. Like the intermediate-level students, the rest of the groups fell along the same sort of oratory-continuum, from low-talkers, to folks who pretty much just read off the paper, to students fumbling with audio-visual buttons and screens.

I had high hopes for my graduate students. And, just like my undergraduates, they didn’t disappoint. The entire class and I sat enrapt and entertained as group after group delivered presentations abounding with thoughtfulness and overflowing with great energy and humor (and this is an evening class, from 7:35 to 10:05 pm). One of the key differences in the performances of the graduate students was how much they drew on the power of acting.

Several groups created characters as the conduits for their delivery. For example, the first group introduced us to the characters of Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Logos (played by Charles Hamlin) was very matter-of-fact in his speech as he talked of some ways he deploys himself in the service of argumentation. Pathos (played by Jake Goldman) was an energetic and emotional speaker who talked of the significance of the sentimental value of a dinner plate heirloom from his grandmother that he brought in to show and tell us about. Ethos (also played by Jake Goldman) presented an authoritative figure who was actually an expert in the arts of persuasion. He had written many books on the subject and had an impressive way of linking his argumentation to his previous partners’ talks comparatively. After watching my graduate students perform so excellently, I was left to ponder the ancient rhetorical admonishment from the most renowned of Roman orators, Cicero: "The habits of actors must be studied if we wish to perfect our delivery." 

Coda

For each class, I let them know that each group, at least from me, had received a full score of five on creativity. I let them all know that they all did a good job of making the lecture their own. I told them that if they think they are not "creative" then they had better guess again. (I have had many students say that they are "not creative.") I explained that I believe all humans, and most animals, are creative. I said I have three dogs and I have watched them all solve problems and try to figure things out … creatively. I praised them all heavily, telling all students that they did a much better job overall than I had ever done. And that everyone had some strengths and weaknesses — some groups that may not have been as “energetic” were good with "clarity" for example. By the time I had experienced all three classes, I could report back the results to all my students comparatively.

Sure, maybe I could have been more critical of the students’ performances. Yes, perhaps more critical scrutiny would have been more edifying for the low-talkers, or the underprepared, or the obviously nervous. But what is most important for young, or older, active minds to hear? Since, as a class, we assessed and critiqued each group, everyone knew how they had performed in the eyes of their peers; from our interaction, they knew/learned what they might have done better, more, less. I don’t think they needed me spurring them on any more than that.

Most of my in-class lesson plans do involve collaborative interactivity. And, along with other essays I have written for Inside Higher Ed, this essay has attempted to respond to an argument I recently made regarding teachers of writing holding themselves up to the same rigorous performance expectations and standards (habits of mind) as their students. So when I foresee the chance, I will try to make all of my activities in class reach for the stars like this one.  I will consider my students as colleagues more carefully, and I will try to imagine what might happen if I let them ride a wild-horse activity out of the gates from time to time. Maybe they will do their part to put the word “rhetoric” back in the proper intellectual tradition (albeit with an energetic modern twist) that it deserves. (For a lively introduction to the study of rhetoric, created by Clemson grad students, see the YouTube video "In Defense of Rhetoric: Not Just for Liars.")


 

Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.

Colleges differ on the role of exams in evaluating student writing

Smart Title: 

Decades ago, two colleges in Virginia decided all students would need to pass essay exam to graduate. Old Dominion just dropped the unusual requirement, while Hampden-Sydney has no intention of doing so.

Assistant professor

Date Announced: 
Mon, 04/02/2012

Essay on the value of first-year writing courses

Of all the words that might be applied to Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke — "vile," "misogynistic" and "repulsive" come to mind — one word that has no place in the discussion is "surprise." Limbaugh has made a phenomenally lucrative career of such comments, mocking women, minorities, and many others with gleeful impunity. In doing so, he has inspired a small but disproportionately loud army of imitators on talk radio, cable television, and, increasingly, in the halls of Congress, whose rhetorical tactics of misinformation, demonization, incendiary metaphors, and poisonous historical analogies have done much to debase public discourse.

To say that the current state of public discourse is abysmal seems self-evident. Toxic rhetoric has become a fact of everyday life, a form of entertainment, and a corporate product. Aside from Limbaugh, the contemporary rhetorical scene features pundits such as Glenn Beck, who once mused on-air about killing a public official with a shovel, and talk radio host Neal Boortz, who compared Muslims to "cockroaches." Politicians can be equally offensive. Allen West, the Florida congressman, has compared the Democratic Party to Nazi propagandists, while California congresswoman Maxine Waters has called Republican leaders "demons." Given the forces of money and the power that support such discourse, it would easy to conclude that there is no remedy for toxic rhetoric and no credible opposing forces working to counteract it.

Such a view, however, would be mistaken. In fact, there is a well-organized, systematic, and dedicated effort taking place each day to promote an ethical public discourse grounded in the virtues of honesty, accountability, and generosity. The site of this effort is largely hidden from public view, taking place in the classrooms of universities and colleges across the United States. Even in academe, the movement for an ethical public discourse is largely overlooked. Indeed, it has been historically underfunded, inadequately staffed, and generally marginalized. I refer, of course, to first-year composition, the introductory writing course required at many public and private institutions.

To some, this may seem counterintuitive. First-year composition — also called academic writing, writing and rhetoric, college composition and other names — is not typically associated with improving public discourse, much less considered a "movement." To students required to take the course, it may initially be seen as a speed bump, an exercise in curricular gatekeeping best dispatched as painlessly as possible. To faculty who do not teach the course, it may inaccurately be dismissed as a remedial exercise in grammar and paragraph formation, functioning somewhere below the threshold of higher education proper.

Yet the first-year writing course represents one of the few places in the academic curriculum, in some institutions the only place, where students learn the basics of argument, or how to make a claim, provide evidence, and consider alternative points of view. Argument is the currency of academic discourse, and learning to argue is a necessary skill if students are to succeed in their college careers. Yet the process of constructing arguments also engages students, inevitably and inescapably, in questions of ethics, values, and virtues.

What do students learn, for example, when learning to make a claim? To make a claim in an argument is to propose a relationship between others and ourselves. For the relationship to flourish, a degree of trust must exist among participants, which means that readers must be assured that claims are made without equivocation or deception. To make a successful claim, then, students practice the virtue of honesty.

In the same way, to offer evidence for claims is both to acknowledge the rationality of the audience, which we trust will reason cogently enough to examine our views justly, and a statement of our own integrity, our willingness to support assertions with proofs. In offering evidence, we practice the virtues of respectfulness and accountability.

And when students include counter-arguments in their essays, when they consider seriously opinions, facts, or values that contradict their own, they practice the most radical and potentially transformative behavior of all; they sacrifice the consolations of certainty and expose themselves to the doubts and contradictions that adhere to every worthwhile question. In learning to listen to others, students practice the virtues of tolerance and generosity.

First-year composition, in other words, is more than a course in grammar and rhetoric. Beyond these, it is a course in ethical communication, offering students opportunities to learn and practice the moral and intellectual virtues that Aristotle identified in his Nicomachean Ethics as the foundation for a good life.

What does this mean for the future of public discourse? Potentially a great deal. Consider the numbers. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the professional association of writing programs, counts 152 university and college writing programs in its ranks. Each program may offer anywhere between 10 and 70 writing courses each semester, in classes of 12 to 25 students. Moreover, the CWPA represents just a fraction of the 4,495 institutions of higher education in the United States, serving some 20 million students. This suggests that even by the most conservative estimate thousands of institutions offer some form of first-year writing, and tens of thousands of students each year — likely many more than that — have opportunities to study the relationships of argument, ethics, and public discourse. Indeed, the first-year writing course is the closest thing we have in American public life to a National Academy of Reasoned Rhetoric, a venue in which students can rehearse the virtues of argument so conspicuously lacking in our current political debates.

Should students bring these virtues to the civic square, they will inevitably transform it, distancing us from the corrosive language of figures such as Rush Limbaugh and moving us toward healthier, more productive, and more generous forms of public argument. This, at any rate, is the promise of the long-maligned first-year writing course.

John Duffy is the Francis O'Malley Director of the University Writing Program and an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.

Essay on the atmosphere at writing programs conference

I recently spent four days at the AWP Carnival at the Chicago Hilton; there were, according to various reports, anywhere from 9,300 to 10,000 in attendance, and I saw most of those attendees standing ahead of me in line at Starbucks or waiting for a seat at Kitty O’Shea’s Pub. This was the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, where “writers, editors, and publishers come together.” And like most carnivals, it dealt in dreams.

There were 450 panels to choose from — all holding the promise of some magical connection, some dim and dimly borrowed light. This last was sometimes the literal case: a session on writing for radio involved the audience sitting in the dark and listening to the panelists’ favorite segments. Their advice: storytelling is key (well, yes) and audience members should feel free to look up any of the panelists online.

Interestingly, the session audiences’ biggest applause seemed to be reserved not for resume line-items involving publishing coups (such as one, two or even three memoirs -- that particular author deserved a round of applause for the sheer stamina involved not only in the life she lived but also her determination to write -- and write -- about it) but for announcements by panelists regarding tenure. At one session, a mystery writer announced that her recent MFA in playwriting had led to a tenure-track appointment; at another, the crowd literally went wild when a poet panelist announced that she had just received tenure. The irony of the fact that she was part of a panel promising to reveal what sort of work outside academia could bring MFA graduates, if not fame and fortune, then at least enough money to pay off their loans, went largely unnoticed. As for that session, the lead presenter was absent, and so the others valiantly soldiered on. It turned out that for these panelists, at least, “outside academia” meant working on the edges of academia. The advice included:

  • Hold creative writing salons in your home.
  • Be fortunate enough to have a thesis adviser who is selected to be Poet Laureate; then work as an intern for him/her.
  • Go back to school! Specifically, go back to school for an MLS degree. (Libraries are among the first to be hit in recessions. A master's in library science will only qualify graduates to attend future sessions entitled “What to Do with Your Library Degree.")

No one mentioned going back to school for classes in business or info tech or community planning. No one mentioned that you can be an accountant (or a health care worker or a plumber) and still write. The single poet most responsible for changing poetry in the .21st century was a doctor who made house calls. But there was no recognition of William Carlos Williams or of any other physician writer. Nor did anyone mention Wallace Stevens, who combined a career in life insurance with a life of poetry. No one mentioned the missing panelist, who has admirably combined a life of business and poetry and who served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. No one mentioned that there are, in fact, plenty of paying writing jobs available. Or that a one-time prize of $1,000 or a free trip to a writers’ conference isn’t enough, in the long run, to sustain a life.  Or that one might apply imagination and creativity to finding or creating a job. Yes, poetry is the news that stays new. But you can do something else and still write poetry. And someone should have told you that before you started your MFA program.

Of the 9,300 to 10,000 attendees, one third, according to AWP executive director David Fenza were graduate students. Of these 3,000+ individuals, a handful seemed to be interested in nonfiction (or at least the memoir category of nonfiction) or playwriting (playwriting! Why not, at least, screenplay writing?); a number were engaged in fiction writing, but the vast majority were poets. The final (and recently tenured) panelist suggested volunteer work and offered a twofold rationale: that volunteer work might lead to (academic) connections and  that poets already receive nothing for their work, so why not consider doing more work for nothing? This line received the most laughter that I heard in two days, and was far more amusing, albeit in a grim existential sort of way, than the ones I heard at a session titled “How to Tell a Joke.”

Of course, if you’re a poet or a jokester, you didn’t even have to buy a conference pass; you could skip the panels and just cruise the hotel lobby. Or go straight to the bars. Or you could, on the last day of the conference, hang out for free at the midway, the literally underground portion of the event — the book fair with its more than 550 exhibitors’ booths located in the basement of the Hilton. Here a few big-name academic publishers (whose displays featured textbooks about writing for teachers of writing) and venerable publishing houses shared space with many more small presses, small literary magazines, several individuals selling their single works, and reps for MFA programs. The atmosphere, like that of any other carnival, was crowded and noisy, with hawkers pushing their wares and onlookers seeking the lucky chance. Most attendees that I observed followed a similar pattern: upon first arriving, attentive perusal of each table, to be replaced, by the fifth row, by a sort of quick jog down the middle of the aisles.

There were some striking moments. Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea..., delivered one of the best conference presentations that I have ever heard. Derek Alger and his panel of writers talking about memoir writing were funny and frank. Esmeralda Santiago and Jesmyn Ward read and spoke powerfully and beautifully.

The two most interesting people that I met during my time in Chicago were Margaret Atwood, the famous Canadian author who delivered the keynote address, and Cindy, the cab driver who drove me to and from the hotel. “Met,” in the case of Atwood, is a slight exaggeration; along with 139 other devotees, I had won a lottery for the book signing. By the time I approached her at the signing table, she looked so exhausted that I contemplated jumping the velvet guide rope and running away. As the woman waiting next to me on the line said, “My God, do you think we’re killing her?”

Atwood’s speech, listed in the program for an hour-and-a-half slot, ran about 25 minutes. This meant, if I added up the registration fee, the plane fare, the hotel bill, the bar bill, and Cindy’s rides to and from the airport, that I had actually paid about $75.00 per minute to sit in her presence. But it was, after all, Atwood, and it was worth it to see her and to hear her — wryly brilliant as ever — deliver a speech that began with her remarking that when she stated writing, there were no organizations like AWP — it was just her, writing and then tearing up drafts and then writing again.

As for Cindy, she’s been driving a cab for 18 years, or nearly all of her adult life. She’s looking, however, to get out of the business, and so she’s going back to school next year. Someday, she told me, she’s going to write about her life as a cab driver. In the meantime, she’s signed up for a community-college program -- in radiology.

Carolyn Foster Segal left a full-time tenured position in Dec. 2011. She currently works as an adjunct at Muhlenberg College and as a book-group facilitator for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. She has had over 25 other jobs, including waitressing, sitting as an artists’ model, and working on the assembly line in a pickle factory.

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