Channeling Mom in the Classroom
Jessica Wells Cantiello’s mother drove her slightly crazy with mountainous packets of news clippings. Now her students are the beneficiaries.
Like many women my age, I have recently realized that I am turning into my mother. Unlike many of my peers, though, I did not come to this epiphany as a result of my child-rearing tendencies; I don’t have children, so I have yet to hear my mother’s voice emanating from my mouth and directed to my own child, as many of my friends have experienced.
I am channeling my mother for a different audience: my college-age writing students.
My mom has always been an avid writer of notes – in lunch boxes, birthday cards, numbered envelopes for each day of the occasional week that she would be out of town – but when I left for college, her notes started to include a new component: newspaper clippings. I suppose it was because before then, she would just slide the paper across the table, or leave it in my room, and I would shrug or smile or sigh, read (skim) it, and throw it out.
Now, 250 miles away, she couldn’t do that anymore, so she started to clip and send me any and all articles that she wanted to share, years before forwarding links became a common practice.
Every few weeks, I’d get a business-size envelope stuffed with clippings. Many were from the local paper, updating me on what was happening in the town I had called home for my whole life. Sometimes they’d include articles from The New York Times, maybe about something we’d been discussing on the phone.
There was usually no note; if a whole page was included, she’d circle the relevant article or draw a huge arrow in the margin, and if the article was continued on another page, the two columns would be neatly stapled. Often I didn’t know right away why she’d sent one of these and hours later, usually in class, the connection would come to me: “Oh right, the other day we were talking about marmalade!”
When I graduated and moved in with my now husband, she upped the ante, sending a single envelope nearly exploding with articles, some arrows now labeled “for Jim.” For our wedding shower she gave us two photo albums full of recipes clipped from, you guessed it, the newspaper.
When I started to subscribe to the Times and told her I had already seen most of the articles she was sending, she grudgingly stopped. But most of our phone conversations included some comment along the lines of “what’d you think of that article in the paper?” and even now, 3,000 miles away, I get envelopes every so often with clippings from local papers and alumni magazines she knows that I wouldn’t see otherwise.
Sometimes getting these clippings would annoy me, especially when I had no idea what they meant. Usually, they were relatively innocuous, eliciting an eye roll and a shrug. I certainly never thought I’d be clipping articles for my own children, not because I doubted that newspapers would exist (although I do), but frankly because I thought it was kind of weird.
Little did I know that this behavior would seep into my life where I would least expect it: my classroom. As a writing teacher, I am dedicated to giving choice in assignments and letting students take their papers where their curiosity lies, mostly because students write better when they care about what they are writing about.
For freshmen, this is a way to train them in the habits of mind that will help them in academia: identifying their own interests, connecting with the material, taking ownership of an argument. My upper-division students have so much to share; they can use these wide prompts to craft arguments out of the expertise they’ve developed in their majors, or they can take the opportunity to explore interests that don’t overlap with their area of study.
This commitment to choice means that my 57 students are usually writing 57 very different papers, which is where the mom-inspired clipping comes in. It started innocently enough – I’d cut out articles relevant to the class as a whole, and pass them around, or, more often, I’d post relevant links to a class blog (I’m not as a much of a Luddite as this essay’s emphasis on newspaper clippings might suggest).
Then I started to notice articles that reminded me of certain students, and couldn’t resist the urge to send them their way. “Relevant link” or “Thought you might be interested,” the subject line would announce.
“Came across this in my reading and thought it could be useful for your assignment,” I’d continue, my version of the big arrow pointing to the right article. This semester alone I’ve sent students articles on subjects ranging from the ethics of unpaid internships in the fashion industry to animal therapy to Adderall abuse to food deserts.
Students like this (or seem to… they probably also think, as I did, that it’s a little weird). “She remembers what topics we are writing on,” they note on evaluations. They write back: “Thanks for thinking of me; I’ll definitely check it out.”
Sometimes, they return the favor, forwarding me articles that remind them of the class or something I said; this makes me very happy -- although that joy is tempered when the time stamp reveals that they sent it to me in the middle of our class time.
All joking aside, though, what started as a kind of unacknowledged generational impulse has served as a useful pedagogical tool.
First, it reminds students that I care about them, which, in itself, is obviously important. What I’ve come to understand about my mom’s envelopes is that they were never just about sharing what was in them; they meant that no matter what she was doing, she had me in mind. I’m not my students’ mother and the parent-child relationship is clearly quite different from the teacher-student one; however, any teacher will tell you that personal connections forged with his or her students contribute to their engagement in the course.
These emails, personalized as they are, show students that I am interested in their individual growth and passions, and cultivates the one-on-one relationships that are central to writing instruction, since each writer’s needs are different and unique.
Sending these virtual clippings also models the kind of active engagement with the world through reading that we try to build as a habit in college students. Students see that I read a lot; I’m not searching out these articles for them but rather coming across them as I do my daily reading, a ritual that most students have not developed, especially at the beginning of college.
Teaching college writing is, as the title of Gerald Graff’s excellent textbook notes, about showing students how to enter academic conversations, and these articles show students that they are already engaging in conversations, even if they don’t realize it. Plus, reading teaches writing; the more students read good prose, the more they will find themselves consciously and unconsciously mimicking it.
These links also expose students to new venues, sites and publications. After receiving one of my “relevant link” emails, a student came to my office exclaiming, “Now I can see why you love The Atlantic!” Hopefully, some students, lured to these sites by a relevant article, stay awhile and find something to enjoy in them besides the link from their crazy professor.
Although we see our students as digital natives, the reality is they often lack experience on the internet with the types of sites we’d like them to be reading. I’ve found that guiding them there through authentic sharing in this way is much more successful than simply telling them (or even assigning them) to check out these venues, and that the students who explore them as a result of a relevant link are the ones who tend to continue browsing them throughout the semester and beyond.
Teaching inspiration comes from so many sources: formal training, random interactions with colleagues in the hallway, desperate moments when something goes and wrong and you just have to figure something else out, mentors who let us steal their best moves, students who make you take a second look at an old standby, and, apparently, our moms.
So, sorry, Mom, for rolling my eyes when the envelopes arrived; my students (and I) are better off because of it.
Jessica Wells Cantiello is a lecturer in the writing program at the University of Southern California.
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