I’m conferencing with students
On their first drafts
And this one has taken the course
Twice before and failed
And he brings me only two pages
Of the six I assigned
And he says he’s having trouble
With the summaries
And also should he put the thesis
In the introduction
Or just where do I want it to go
And I say it depends
On if you want to start with a question
And then examine
How others have responded to it
And then your answer
Would be your thesis in your conclusion
But then I realize oops
He’s standing before a vending machine
And I won’t take his dollar.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University.
Creative writing has its share of detractors, those who believe that the study of and teaching of creative writing produces deleterious effects for students and for literature. For example, in "Poetry Vs. Ambition," Donald Hall worries that invention exercises (writing warm-ups which help writers find their subject) in writing classrooms "reduce poetry to a parlor game," producing "McPoems" on assembly lines. "Abolish the M.F.A.!" states Hall with an exclamation point, and then, in Latin, he cries, "The Iowa Writers Workshop must be destroyed."
Hall’s essay reflects a particularly unproductive strand of criticism aimed at creative writing that has arisen of late. Anis Shivani is perhaps its most recent practitioner, with a soapbox on which to stand, but certainly not the only detractor. Indeed, when Shivani’s critiques of creative writing programs emerged, preceding the publication of his book Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011) many of us were approached by creative writing colleagues wanting to know what we thought of this brash new critique of the workshop. What they didn’t understand was that his assertions weren’t new at all, but by boldly ignoring the scholarly conversations that had been going on about this subject for many years — a fact made plain by what is missing in the book, specifically in the works cited — Shivani was able to create a scholarly stance that acted as if they were.
In fact, what Shivani, Hall and others practice is better termed a "new old criticism" — new because it proliferates in electronic social media, old because it rehashes simplistic assertions that have been around for decades. This argument has three major problems: First, its rhetorical stance is far more appropriate for talk radio than for a serious scholarly or public debate; its practitioners refuse to engage with the actual arguments of those with whom they disagree. Second, this new old criticism is rooted in dated and limited assumptions about what creative writing is and can be.
In reading this criticism, one can see that it is aimed at the Iowa Writers’ Workshops as they are said to have existed in the 1950s; there is no admission of the diversification and complexity of creative writing that has flourished in the decades since then. Third, this new old criticism is stuck within a narcissistic worldview. It perceives an age-old challenge — the difficulty of writers finding readers in a world where print technology proliferates — as a personal affront. The new old criticism drapes itself in a narrow banner of great art, adopting the hubristic stance that a writer can actually know with certainty that he or she is producing such great art in the moment of creating it.
So should everyone associated with creative writing programs pack up and shut our doors? This isn’t going to happen. The horse is out of the barn. Creative writing classes are more popular than ever, in part because they offer not just a means of expression but an alternative to theory-laden literary analysis.
The real questions are: How can we best design our curriculums and our classes to best serve the needs of our students? What can we do to ensure that creative writing — the teachers, the students, the courses, the programs — has a positive impact on contemporary literature? Which aspects of creative writing — the writing itself as a process and as a product of our efforts — can be taught, and what are the best practices for such teaching? How does creative writing fit into English departments, into the liberal arts generally, and into the colleges and universities where it is housed? Finally, in our breathtakingly tight economy, what kinds of careers and lives are creative writing students being prepared for?
Given the scope of its critical mass, creative writing stands as a knowledge-based discipline. Rather than associate knowledge with certainty as traditional academic models often do, the knowledge in creative writing is in the discovery that takes the writer beyond the routines and in the questions that arise and that are answered through the writing process. Study of writing through reading and writing is the methodology we use; this mode of knowledge acquisition leads to new conclusions. Knowledge through practice, through doing, through thinking about and talking about what we’re doing. To wit, we have observed that the "flipped" classroom, in which students absorb lectures online outside of class and come to class to work hands-on with the material, has become the latest trend in college teaching.
By engaging students in hands-on work on their own writing and that of others, the oft-maligned "workshop," which has evolved over the years to suit varying constituents, undergraduates, graduate students, general education students and majors, has modeled a "flipped" classroom almost since its inception. This conversation about creative writing also speaks to what has become recently known as the crisis in the humanities. Helene Moglen, in the latest issue of the Modern Language Association's Profession, gives a convincing overview of a crisis that goes back to the 1980s, with the report called "A Nation at Risk." Among the few causes of the crisis in the humanities that Moglen defines are "internal disagreements about the appropriate development of our disciplines" and "prevalent social attitudes toward education that assume irrelevance of humanistic study."
David Fenza, of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, points out, in his history of creative writing in higher education, that "creative writing classes have become among the most popular classes in the humanities." To meet demand, creative writing programs have at least tripled in number in the last 30 years, and many of us are housed in English departments. If the humanities are in crisis, creative writing is not. In fact, creative writing is not only healthy within the academy but has relevance beyond it. Contemporary literature, after all, is written by creative writers, whether or not they have earned an M.F.A. This relevance offers an example for other disciplines, a way to resist prevalent social attitudes that overlook the value and contributions of the arts and humanities to our culture and our daily lives.
Finally, many creative writing programs have recognized that while most students won’t necessarily go on to become the next Jonathan Franzen (just like most violin students won’t play with the National Symphony, or sculpture students exhibit their work at the Hirshhorn), they do want to work in creative industries. A survey of the curriculums of many of these programs, which usually offer courses not only in creativity and craft but also in new media, editing and publishing, reveals that they prepare students to do just that.
The sniping about what’s appropriate for our discipline or whether creative writing should even be an academic discipline emerges, however, from within our ranks. Hall has taught workshops and visited creative writing programs to read his work, and Shivani is a creative writer as well as a critic. Airing our internal disagreements and pitting writers against each other — outside or within the academy — does few of us any good and invites a sense of crisis in creative writing when there isn’t one. Let’s do our research. Let’s have productive conversations.
People who shoot the occasional salvo at creative writing aren’t really interested in taking part in a conversation, but we are, and we invite others in our midst to join us in this ongoing conversation about our discipline. This discussion can shape the healthy development of creative writing, position us positively within academe, and shift social attitudes toward a better future for literature and learning.
Tim Mayers is author of (Re) Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing and the Future of English Studies. He teaches at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
Dianne Donnelly is the author of Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, editor of Does the Writing Workshop Still Work and co-editor of Key Issues in Creative Writing.
Tom Hunley is an associate professor at Western Kentucky university. His books include The Poetry Gymnasium, Teaching Poetry Writing and Octopus.
Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter She edited Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom. She teaches at Chapman University.
Stephanie Vanderslice is professor of writing and director of the Arkansas Writer's M.F.A. Workshop, at the University of Central Arkansas.
“A poem,” wrote William Carlos Williams toward the end of World War II, “is a small (or large) machine of words.” I’ve long wondered if the good doctor -- Williams was a general practitioner in New Jersey who did much of his writing between appointments – might have come up with this definition out of weariness with the flesh and all its frailties. Traditional metaphors about “organic” literary form usually imply a healthy and developing organism, not one infirm and prone to messes. The poetic mechanism is, in Williams’s vision, “pruned to a perfect economy,” and there is “nothing sentimental about a machine.”
Built for efficiency, built to last. The image this evoked 70 years ago was probably that of an engine, clock, or typewriter. Today it’s more likely to be something with printed circuits. And a lot of poems in literary magazines now seem true to form in that respect: The reader has little idea how they work or what they do, but the circuitry looks intricate, and one assumes it is to some purpose.
I had much the same response to the literary scholarship Matthew L. Jockers describes and practices in Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (University of Illinois Press). Jockers is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The literary material he handles is prose fiction -- mostly British, Irish, and American novels of the 18th and 19th centuries -- rather than poetry, although some critics apply the word “poem” to any literary artifact. In the approach Jockers calls “macroanalysis,” the anti-sentimental and technophile attitude toward literature defines how scholars understand the literary field, rather than how authors imagine it. The effect, in either case, is both tough-minded and enigmatic.
FollowingFranco Moretti’s program for extending literary history beyond the terrain defined by the relatively small number of works that remain in print over the decades and centuries, Macroanalysis describes “how a new method of studying large collections of digital material can help us to understand and contextualize the individual works within those collections.”
Instead of using computer-based tools to annotate or otherwise explore a single work or author, Jockers looks for verbal patterns across very large reservoirs of text, including novels that have long since been forgotten. The author notes that only “2.3 percent of the books published in the U.S. between 1927 and 1946 are still in print” (even that figure sounds high, and may be inflated by the recent efforts of shady print-on-demand “publishers” playing fast and loose with copyright) while the most expansive list of canonical 19th-century British novels would represent well under 1 percent of those published.
Collections such as the Internet Archive and HathiTrust Digital Library available for analysis. Add to this the capacity to analyze the metadata about when and where the books were published, as well as available information on the authors, and you have a new, turbocharged sort of philology – one covering wider swaths of literature than even the most diligent and asocial researcher could ever read.
Or would ever want to, for that matter. Whole careers have been built on rescuing “unjustly neglected” authors, of course, but oblivion is sometimes the rightful outcome of history and a mercy for everyone involved. At the same time, the accumulation of long-unread books is something like a literary equivalent of the kitchen middens that archeologists occasionally dig up – the communal dumps, full of leftovers and garbage and broken or outdated household items. The composition of what’s been discarded and the various strata of it reveal aspects of everyday life of long ago.
Jockers uses his digital tools to analyze novels by, essentially, crunching them -- determining what words appear in each book, tabulating the frequency with which they are used, likewise quantifying the punctuation marks, and working out patterns among the results according to the novel’s subgenre or publication date, or biographical data about the author such as gender, nationality, and regional origin.
The findings that the author reports tend to be of a very precise and delimited sort. The words like, young, and little “are overrepresented in Bildungsroman novels compared to the other genres in the test data.” There is a “high incidence of locative prepositions” (over, under, within, etc.) in Gothic fiction, which may be “a direct result of the genre’s being ‘place oriented.’” That sounds credible, since Gothic characters tend to find themselves moving around in dark rooms within ruined castles with secret passageways and whatnot.
After about 1900, Irish-American authors west of the Mississippi began writing more fiction than their relations on the other side of the river, despite their numbers being fewer and thinner on the ground. Irish-American literature is Jockers’s specialty, and so this statistically demonstrable trend proves of interest given that “the history of Irish-American literature has had a decidedly eastern bias…. Such neglect is surprising given the critical attention that the Irish in the West have received from American and Irish historians.”
As the familiar refrain goes: More research is needed.
Macroanalysis is really a showcase for the range and the potential of what the author calls “big data” literary study, more than it is a report on its discoveries. And his larger claim for this broad-sweep combination of lexometric and demographic correlation-hunting – what Moretti calls “distant reading” -- is that it can help frame new questions about style, thematics, and influence that can be pursued through more traditional varieties of close reading.
And he’s probably right about that, particularly if the toolkit includes methods for identifying and comparing semantic and narrative elements across huge quantities of text. (Or rather, when it includes them, since that’s undoubtedly a matter of time.)
Text-crunching methodologies offer the possibility of establishing verifiable, quantifiable, exact results in a field where, otherwise, everything is interpretive, hence interminably disputable. This sounds either promising or menacing. What will be more interesting, if we ever get it, is technology that can recognize and understand a metaphor and follow its implications beyond the simplest level of analogy. A device capable of, say, reading Williams’s line about the poem as machine and then suggesting something interesting about it – or formulating a question about what it means.
In 2010, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, who is serving a 30-year term in an undisclosed prison near Beijing. Last year, the Swedish Academy selected for the literature prize Mo Yan, a pen name that means being silent. The latest joke in China sums up the two divergent fortunes of the country's only laureates: one is called silence; the other is silenced.
If the earlier prize had angered the Chinese government, the most recent one puzzled Chinese literary critics. "Why Mo Yan?" everyone asked during my recent three-week lecture tour in China. Someone suggested that I was partially to blame because I had included the author in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. In truth, Mo Yan had gotten his lucky break much earlier when his early novel Red Sorghum was turned into a hugely successful movie, and a second lucky break in an excellent Swedish translator.
This answer didn't quite satisfy my audiences, who found this writer, who tends to revel in seemingly archaic rural worlds, out of touch with their own urban experience. The only person in China who is happy about both Nobel Prizes is Tong Quingbing, a professor of literary theory at Beijing Normal University, who taught both Liu Xiaobo and Mo Yan there and who is known to boast about his two famous students.
The Chinese Government and many Chinese don't count Nobel Prizes for Chinese living abroad, often because they and their works are banned. And yet the literary production of the Chinese diaspora, especially in the United States, is too significant to be ignored, and Chinese scholars are now paying attention to writers like Ha Jin. Even though he is barred from returning to China, Ha Jin can now see some of his novels, for example his most recent Nanjing Requiem, favorably reviewed in China.
During my lecture tour, the topic of greatest interest was capitalism. How did American writers respond to the convulsive forces of industrialization and capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, my Chinese hosts and students wanted to know? I offered as resonant examples writers like Frank Norris, whose Trilogy of the Wheat described the power unleashed by the Chicago Stock Exchange and Eugene O'Neill's Hairy Ape, which identifies with the awe-inspiring energy of a steamboat. I described this literature as "capitalist sublime" because writers like Norris and O'Neill approached the overwhelming power of capitalism in ways similar to how 18th century philosophers described unimaginably large numbers and overpowering storms.
When I traveled through China on the sleek bullet train at 200 miles per hour past a landscape of power plants, factories, and gigantic developments, I understood why Norris and O'Neill resonated. Chinese newspapers revel in records, the speed with which the latest battery of high-rises has been built, the latest increase in production. Everywhere, superlatives abound. At the same time, the human and environmental costs are becoming more difficult to ignore. Writers like Frank Norris or Eugene O'Neill didn't have any illusions about the destructive powers of capitalism, either; the sublime was a way of understanding that as well.
I was struck that my Chinese audiences had a rich experience of the capitalist sublime, but they were less familiar with the most hard-nosed defenders of capitalism like Joseph Schumpeter, whose term "creative destruction" fits the current Chinese experience better than any. Ayn Rand was completely unknown as well, though my description of her novels and theories resonated with the harsh face of capitalism in China. Rand's glorification of egotism, by contrast, led only to gasps of astonishment.
The biggest problem for urban Chinese right now, and the subject of the latest set of superlatives, is the explosion of housing prices. Everyone talked about it, on trains, over dinner, after lectures. Those who are priced out are kicking themselves for having waited too long while others rattle off the latest increase in home values (10 million rmb, one teacher told me, about 1.6 million dollars, for a modest Beijing apartment). Students complain that they will have to find work at home because they will be forced to move back with their parents. Those who buy rely on family networks to raise the funds for the down payment. Small wonder that a play like David Mamet's Glengary Glen Ross, the best American work on real estate, is of interest here.
The future of Chinese letters and its relation to world literature is closely bound up with the country's experiment in marrying its one-party system to market capitalism, what the Chinese now refer to, with a chuckle, as "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" (a modification of the official "socialism with Chinese characteristics"). Who will describe its new heroes and new victims? How will writers — and other artists — capture the powers, the superlatives, the destructions, creative and otherwise, of this new brand of capitalism?
The next Chinese Nobel Prize in Literature will probably not be a writer of rural life, like Mo Yan, but a Chinese David Mamet aiming at the world's largest housing bubble. Or, if we are unlucky, an Ayn Rand with Chinese characteristics.
"Mike" is a student in my developmental English course. He was born in Argentina and calls himself Argentine, but he came here with his parents and older sister when he was 5 and he’s now 26. His family members speak Spanish at home, but Mike is of course perfectly fluent in English, having gone to public schools. He has been at our community college for two years; his only class this semester is developmental English. He has taken this very course four times, and his choice of other content courses is limited until he passes this class.
He has a round, bright face, dark hair, bushy brows, wire-frame glasses, small features and a neatly trimmed goatee. He is usually smiling broadly or grinning nervously. He is always anxious about directions. Today he is anxious about finding words with which to describe "The Rules of Friendship." I have written those four words on the board, and told the class, "Go ahead. List the rules … or laws or duties … of friendship."
"Friendship’s a duty?" Mike asks.
I address the class, "Is it a duty?"
"No," says Adam. “It’s more like … friendship has duties. That means if you’re gonna be a friend, you gotta do this or that."
"Right! So list — just list — what you think the duties or rules of friendship are."
This assignment never works.
I mean to draw them out, to get them to commit themselves to some ideas and then I imagine complicating those "laws" they’ve proscribed by having them read William Carlos Williams’s "The Knife of the Times," a very short story about Maura, a married woman, whose friend from childhood, Ethel, also a married woman, has realized she is passionately in love with her. Then, having read that story with my students, I imagine saying to them, "Well, why can’t a friend fall in love with you? What control do we have over that? Why shouldn’t we be sympathetic, as the flattered but confused heroine is?"
Just describing that assignment, it fools me again! It sounds so good!
It never works! It’s not Williams’s plot that throws them; even the most agile writers in the class get angry at their thoughts or annoyed with me for having tricked them in contemplating discomfiting possibilities; my queries in the margin are ignored or hastily answered.
Mike, in any case, is stuck. He raises his hand. Mike sits in the front row by, whenever possible, patient Joyce, who knows from her own difficult experiences in education what it is to be an outcast. Though smart and hardworking, Joyce has difficulties with fine motor skills that have hampered her social acceptance and made her handwriting appear — though it’s not — illiterate. (She refused to accept the services of a scribe, though she had used one in high school, she told me.) Mike, in a panicky hushed voice, says something to her. Joyce whispers something in reply. Mike shakes his head and keeps his hand raised.
“So, professor, is it O.K. if I say … if I say the duty of friendship is to be a friend?”
Joyce covers her eyes and bows her head.
Especially in developmental English, I really try not to be sarcastic. So I pause, but several students in that pause tilt their heads in wonder. It’s only the second week of class and Mike has become already the touchstone of incomprehension. Everyone understands better than Mike. If they don’t, they know they just weren’t listening. Mike’s presence is reassuring ("I’m not that confused!"), but it’s also worrying ("If I’m in the same place as this guy …"). I don’t want the other students to feel misplaced. They are in the right place — but they will make progress and Mike never ever will.
If you’re a serious teacher, you should indignantly ask, "How could you know that?" Or, trying to be kind, "How did you resign yourself to accepting that?" I’ve asked myself those questions, too, because I’m quite accustomed to being wrong about students — so how could I have faith in (resignation to) Mike’s failure?
By the end of the second week, I have guessed that Mike is probably a student who uses the outstanding special services program at our college. He and I are veterans of this course; I have taught it 22 times; he has taken it or the class immediately below this one four times.
He has told me his previous instructors here were nice but they didn’t know how to help him. He says it’s very good that I know some Spanish ("Some?" I wonder — I thought my Spanish was pretty good!), and that he has appreciated a few of the explanations I’ve been able to give him in Spanish, but he says my vocabulary is poor. "It’s O.K.," he says, encouragingly, patronizingly, in the same way I realize I sometimes address the students. "People think Spanish is easy, but it’s not."
One morning at the end of our third week, he waits for me after class. I have announced the date for the departmental midterm, and he tells me, "You know I have a few problems and I get to have extra time on my exams?"
"No, I didn’t know that."
He pulls out a form from the special services program that does not explain in any particulars why he’s to be allowed extra time, and he notes the date of the midterm. "And you have to sign here so I can be allowed to do that."
"I don’t really need it, but it’s nice to have extra time sometimes. It’s hard for me to think when there’s lots and lots and lots … and lots of pressure. When there’s a lot of pressure, I don’t really care for that, you know?"
"I know there’s a lot of pressure with exams. It’s fine, Mike."
The next week, Mike asks, a few chapters into our crawl through To Kill a Mockingbird, "Why is Scout angry with his brother?"
"But … Scout?"
"He’s mad at his brother."
"Remember, everyone, Scout is a girl — Mike, you mean her brother."
"Scout’s gotta be a boy," insists Mike.
"But she’s not."
"Because she plays with boys."
"But she’s a girl?"
“Is it the term ‘tomboy’ that’s confusing, Mike?”
"Yeah, maybe that’s it."
Mike makes progress in moments, but those moments are piles of leaves on a windy day. They don’t stay where we pile them. They blow every which way, and the next day there’s no sign of them.
"Scout was a boy but now she’s a girl," he announces.
"No, she’s always been a girl. She is a girl. 'Tomboy' is a term people used to use to describe a girl who plays with boys and prefers their company to other girls."
"So ‘tomboy’ doesn’t have to be a boy?"
"It’s never a boy — it’s always a girl."
"That doesn’t make sense."
"It’s an expression, but that’s really what it means."
"It’s very confused — that word is confused, you know that?"
He writes draft after draft of an essay on a scene from the novel, and I cross out and query his logic or his bewildering accounts of the book. I return draft after draft to him. He is proud of his persistence. This rare quality, which I aspire to and always admire in others, is finally the quality that convinces me Mike’s hopes for educational progress are hopeless. If he weren’t trying so hard, I could keep thinking of ways to try to motivate him. But he is trying so hard. I’m stumped.
"I worked on the revision you gave me back yesterday, because that’s all I really have to do. I don’t have a job, and so I like to sit at my computer and I do my work really fast. I think you’ll like this new one I did. It has everything you said I should say.”
Because he can’t do much with the queries I make (e. g., "Where do you see this in the chapter?" "Is this you or the author making this observation?"), I have been crossing out and rewriting his phrases into sense and instructing him to simply type up what he sees there on the page. Copying what I have written or copying sentences by Harper Lee, it turns out, is quite enough of a challenge. After four or five weeks, we have built an essay about To Kill a Mockingbird. If you don’t look too closely, the essay seems to make sense.
"But this is good, right, professor?"
"Well, it’s getting clearer.”
“But it’s good?"
“Clearer. So, yes, clearer is better, Mike."
During revision time in the computer lab, I have him read new drafts or paragraphs aloud to me and I, holding my own copy, stop him if he doesn’t hear his frantic wandering circlings or missed words. He misreads his own writing and I check him: " 'She seen me,' you wrote."
He’s continually reading my face — I am perplexed by his confusion. "Oh, oh!" he says. He starts his random guessing: "'She didn’t seen me'? …" He studies me. "That’s not right," he concludes. "I can tell!"
"Right. So …"
"Oh! She saw me!"
"Right — and you read it aloud as 'saw' — but you wrote it as 'seen.'"
"Why did I do that?" he asks grinning. He turns and looks over his hunched shoulder at his classmates. He is smiling in embarrassment, though no one else — they’re all typing away -- has witnessed his mistake. "I know what I mean, but I don’t write it. It’s confused. It’s confusing. What’s the difference, confused and confusing? You say both things on my papers sometimes."
"Sometimes I’m confused; sometimes what you write is confusing — producing … making confusion. So, Mike, let’s try to get you to use your ear to check. Go on, we’ll continue, but you can do this on your own, too."
The next day, another draft.
"So this is my sixth draft, professor. You think this’ll pass me?"
"Do I think this will get your portfolio to pass? … No, probably not."
He grins. Had he heard right? "You’re teasing, right, professor? You like to tease."
"I do tease too much … but, no, I wasn’t teasing — Mike, the main thing is to make progress. Your writing is very confusing — even to you! We have to work on that.”
"But I could still pass the class, right?"
"You could — but you don’t need to think about that." He cannot pass! Why am I lying? He will never, ever pass the exams.
“So you think I could pass?” he says quickly, eagerly.
"Right now …" I pause and reflect.
What is encouragement but the faith in progress? I cannot and will not encourage him. I’m going to take back my lie. I’m going to tell him no, never, he’ll never get out of this class and this course. I’m going to be teaching this course until I die and he’ll still be taking it. "Right now, Mike … it doesn’t look likely."
"But if I work real hard …"
"If, somehow, the confusion disappears, then it’s possible."
"It is possible," says Mike. "I can write not so confused, right, professor? And then I’ll pass for sure."
"Let’s get back to work. But I can’t see any more drafts of this because I need time to look at everyone else’s third drafts."
"I have faith in me and you have faith in me, too, right, professor?"
"I know, Mike, that you’re going to work hard. That’s my faith."
He takes a long look over his shoulder, as if to refute his doubters, Pyotr, Adam, and Beatrice, and announces, "I’ll work hard and professor says I’ll climb out of this class!"
A couple of weeks after the midterm, one of my kindly colleagues returns to me my students’ exams. (In our developmental courses we instructors evaluate one another’s students’ exams and portfolios; I’ve come to like this system, as we can all take comfort that the judgments the students receive don’t wholly depend on our personal biases.) "I think I missed on one," says Luisa, with perplexity. "There was something going on and I couldn’t follow it. Miguel, I think it was."
"Mike — yes." That day I hand back the midterms and the other professor’s responses and then meet for a few minutes with each student about the exam. Mike tells me, "I did pretty good!"
"Which part did your reader like, Mike?”"
"None of them really — but she said I could probably do better. I could probably be more clear. So that means I’m doing better."
I will hear, a year later, from Mike’s teacher in the same course, that when Mike showed up to her classroom to take the midterm, she expressed her surprise. "Mike, you want to be here?"
"Yes, here. I know my rights."
“I mean … that’s fine.”
“I can take it here. You can’t stop me.”
“That’s fine, Mike! But you won’t be able to have extra time if you take it here.”
"I know that! I just want to be like everyone else, that’s all."
"Oh." (My colleague: "That’s what got me. After all, his goal’s pretty humble. It’s just … I don’t want to admit it even to myself, but I don’t think I can help him get there.")
The last day of the semester usually seems anticlimactic. The last day used to mean so much to me when I first started teaching. Now the goodbyes are less regretful, less complicated. It’s a cycle rather than an end, I tell myself.
For the developmental class, it’s results day: the students receive their portfolios and their reading scores. If they pass both, they can take the systemwide writing exam and graduate to Freshman English, where they can finally see their time and money paying off in their pursuit of an associate degree. In my office, I gather their portfolios — cross-graded by my colleagues — and leave early for the classroom. I want to see Mike, who is always early, before his classmates arrive. When I arrive he and Adam are there. I have also brought two boxes of doughnuts. I lay the cartons on a desk to the side and open them. "Have one."
"I’m going to wait," says Mike. "I want to see first if I passed."
"Adam?" I say, nodding at the doughnuts.
"Don’t mind if I do!"
I sit at my desk with the stack of student portfolios before me. “Who’s first?”
"We were on the same elevator," says Adam. "Go ahead, Mikey."
Before he approaches, I feel Mike’s eyes trying to read me. Hope? Hope? Hope!
I feel stone-faced, like a judge. How can Mike possibly think he can pass? How?
He sits at the chair to my right beside my desk.
"I passed, right?"
From the stack of portfolios I take his and push it across to him.
"This is my portfolio," he says.
"I should read it?"
“Should I?” he asks. He is desperate to read congratulations in my expression.
As I watch him hesitate, his fingers rubbing at the portfolio cover, his body slowly rocking in the chair, I groan, "You didn’t pass, Mike!"
His mouth goes tight; his round, mobile features go numb. He has never been at a loss for rambling, panicked, anxious words.
The portfolio before him remains unopened. I reach over, he pulls his hand off, and I open the cover.
Imagine a sawn tree just before it’s pushed over. Is it wobbling? Is it unnaturally still because it’s about to topple? I see that stillness in Mike.
I extract the evaluation sheet from the portfolio. "Now look — your revised essay, the one on To Kill a Mockingbird, the one you worked hard on, that’s ‘Satisfactory-minus.’ The professor who read it liked it, for the most part. … See?" I read aloud her comment.
Mike isn’t responding. He is looking at me, not reproachfully, as far as I can tell, or angrily, but as if he has been sentenced to life in prison for a parking ticket. Then I realize he is doing all he can in order not to cry. I am his executioner and in the absence of his voice I am the one babbling. I encourage him!
"You made progress with that essay, Mike. You made some progress. It’s O.K. … it’s not a failure," I lie. "Are you O.K.?"
He doesn’t answer. I close the portfolio.
"Mikey," Adam’s voice calls out from the back of the classroom, "it’s cool. You’ll make it next time."
Mike doesn’t turn. His reproachful eyes land on mine. His eyes are watery but he does not cry. I look down in shame. I see his hand take the folder and when I look up he is lifting his backpack as he rises from the chair.
I say, "Take a doughnut, Mike."
He turns and walks out the door.
I want to lay my head on my desk, but I hear the chatter of voices in the hallway.
Adam says, "I told him before you got here that it might take like two semesters."
For Mike it might be "like forever." He will be here forever, and I will be here forever in that purgatory of non-progress.
I sigh. "You passed, though, Adam. Congratulations."
"I know — anyway, I thought I would. I didn’t want to get too cocky or be too happy while Mike was still here."
The other students are arriving and someday Mike will be back.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.
"Her mother was to read it when it was written; that was understood to be the agreement between them; but there would be no reason why she should not be alone when she wrote it. She could word it very differently, she thought, if she sat alone over it in her own bedroom, than she could do immediately under her mother's eye. She could not pause and think and perhaps weep over it, sitting at the parlour table, with her mother in her arm-chair, close by, watching her.” -- Anthony Trollope, Rachel Ray (Ch. 20)
“Why can’t I write it at home?” asks Shauna.
By reflex, I patiently explain, “You’re going to have to write the exams in class, so it’s good practice.” I see, however, that there are plenty of distractions in our room: the air-conditioning pumps outside the window that are churning; the coffee bar down the hall luring us with its aromas; allergy-plagued Victor with his snortings and snufflings; I with my paper-shuffling; Linda and her eye-sucking cell phone on her lap.
And I know my developmental English students are particularly vulnerable to distractions. They can, like human soufflés, sink into themselves and disappear into their sweatshirts, or, ever- anxious and nervous, can flit and start like deer in the forest, alarmed at the slightest noise.
On the other hand, I discovered long ago when I first started teaching that writing is not so intimidating an activity if everyone else in the room is doing it. And there’s that phenomenon of students of all abilities writing more grammatically and coherently when they’re under the pressure of writing against time, competitively with their classmates, their pens sprinting along -- not being so prone to pause and sink into the grammar-bogs of their native languages or idioms. Quick steps seem to keep us in rhythm even on the winding, bumpy track of writing.
And yet … we professors almost never write in these conditions. My developmental students, the least agile writers and readers, must dance in public through hoops because, before admittance to the college, they failed so miserably at reading and writing. On exam days, they radiate anxiety and I find myself, in my whispered instructions, "Relax! Relax!" that I’m really instead radiating hyper-concerned anxiety right back at them.
So during the semester I try to get everyone accustomed to writing under the gun; writing and reading when none of us want to; writing on and reading topics of no special interest!
"I don’t wanna lie and say I care about community gardens,” says Larry.
“Don’t lie," I say. "Just pretend you’re somebody who does care. Your aunt. The retired schoolteacher down the block."
"Pretending isn’t lying, professor?"
I smile. "No, we call it … fiction."
At the end of every in-class writing assignment, a student will ask, "Can I take it home? I promise I’ll write more than I could here."
"Just try. You have a few more minutes — you can’t take it home."
With exams that I give my second-year students, who have no system- or departmentwide grading to face, I tell them they can write wherever they want to write -- in the hallway, in the library, at the bus stop; they only have to be back by whatever time everyone else is going to finish. I don't really think it's important that they be under my eye. Someone's going to help them write about the very particular and personal points of our many readings? I doubt it. And as I have to admit, they’ve written so much for me already that I know the peculiarities of their writing better than I know the features of their handsome and pretty faces. Yes, I truly believe I can sniff out anything they might borrow from the Internet.
But I want the developmental students to stay put, because out of the classroom is an escape, and they need to get used to not escaping. They need to get used to settling down to work in a noisy environment. They need to learn to shut out their friend sitting next to them.
Yet I'm probably asking too much.
In Trollope’s great Rachel Ray, Rachel needs to write a letter of renunciation to her fiancé -- her mother and her minister have said she should, and so she will. But she needs to do it on her own terms. If they're to tell her what to write, and if her mother is going to have a look at it before she sends it, she needs some space of her own to weep over it. She loves Luke Rowan, and she believes in him, and only a few weeks earlier she had received her mother's and the minister's blessings to love him. She would not have loved him otherwise. Now, due to some plot twists, the authority figures of her life have changed their minds, but she has not changed her heart.
Now, we all know, particularly with developmental writers, that there are matters close to their hearts that are shocking to them as they spill out on the paper.
For instance, Yvonne, regal-looking, sits in the front row, off to the right, by the window, and, 10 minutes into an exam, sits and stares ahead into some middle space. And as I look at her, she seems so distant, so transformed, that I say, "Are you O.K., Yvonne?"
And she looks up, as if waking from a dream, and answers my confounding interference with, "As a matter of fact, I was thinking, professor!"
Most of them write as well as they can in spite of the distractions. Yvonne seems to block us out, to see only the situation she’s imagining. When I discreetly glance at her again, she is writing, brows knitted, her lips parted, almost gasping, her eyes watery.
Next time, I’ll give her some privacy.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.