When I started teaching writing at City College in 2002, I took a poll and every one of my students had a cell phone. I told them that I didn’t have one. It was meant to be a humanizing detail, an icebreaker. I explained how I thought that phones that you carry with you were invasive and distracting and thus dangerous. I should have, but didn’t, ask them to write about the topic.
Instead, I took advantage of the good feelings in the room as an opportunity to outline my cell phone policy, strictly enforced for years: No cell phones in class, ever. If I saw one out or heard a ring, I would ask the student to leave. I wanted to make the point that while students are in class, or doing anything for that matter, they should give the task at hand their undivided attention. It should be noted that there was no equivalent policy against doodling, staring out the window (in the rare instances when there was one), or staring at a classmate’s tight clothes.
In 2006, after my first child was born, I was able to resist getting a cell phone, to the amusement and frustration of my friends and family for another two years. Finally, when my wife was pregnant with our second child, and I was commuting twice a week 90 miles upstate to teach, I came home one day to find a pay-by-the-minute phone activated for me. For a year and a half, I used the phone only when necessary (it was amazing how difficult it had become to make plans with someone — "We’ll meet around eight, somewhere downtown; I’ll text you the exact time and place around then. Oh right, you still don’t have a cell phone"). I’d show off my bulky, bare-bones phone to classes, so they could have a laugh at how primitive it was at the beginning of the semester, and then I’d still drop the hammer on my strict cell phone policy.
But then, all of the sudden, something changed in me, I finally wanted a decent cell phone. And no, it wasn’t because I wanted an iPhone. It was just that I wanted a phone that I could do things with, like kill smug pigs with exploding birds or find out where the traffic was in Queens without waiting until the radio’s report on the 8s or 1s of the hour. So I bought a relatively cheap smartphone.
I didn’t tell my students, nor did I dare, for fear of setting a bad example, pull it out in their presence. But within a week, the students must have somehow sensed something different in me. Requests never made before began popping up. During an open-book reading test, a student asked if he could use a downloaded version of the book on his phone. All right, I told him. A few days later, in a different class, as I was putting an assignment’s instructions on the board, a student asked if he could take out a cell phone to snap a photo of the instructions instead of writing them down. Why not?
Now I start every semester teaching the difference between the register of socializing and academic English by having students translate their informal, acronym-filled text communiqués into formal academic prose. They get it instantly. "LMAO" gets changed to "I find that funny." "OMG shes such a skank" becomes "Wow, she is dirty." The longer and more incomprehensible the message, the more I learn. How else would I have known that "whip" can mean car or that "white boys" may refer to rolling papers?
All of these experiences had only suggested to me that cell phones might be useful as educational tools to a very limited extent. For some time, I continued to believe that by and large they still didn’t belong in the classroom. Until recently, that is. A few months back, I was listening to a radio program about Tony Schwartz, a New York field-recording specialist, whose work dates back to the 1950s. I was in the car, stopped at a light, and without a pen to write down information about an upcoming event on Schwartz, I pulled out my phone and, in an instant, recorded a voice memo. Later, after listening to the voice memo, I was reminded that I wanted to record a poem I had been working on. I printed out a draft, and instead of opening my laptop, I took out the phone.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of teaching writing is reading student papers that are filled with myriad, obvious anacoluthons. The mistakes themselves are not what frustrate. Instead, it’s how these mistakes suggest the students didn’t even bother to read their own work even once before handing it in; it’s how the students have ignored the most oft-repeated proofreading advice given by writing instructors of all levels (and one I repeat with each assignment): read it aloud before you hand it in. But now, it all of the sudden occurred to me, as I was sitting there with the printed poem and the cell phone, I can make them do this. I can make them read their work out loud and demonstrate this by having them upload the file online. I can make them do this all before they hand in a final draft of a paper.
Last semester teaching developmental writing at Queensborough Community College, I gave my students explicit instructions on how to record files of themselves reading their papers, both on their phones and in the computer lab. I also demonstrated for them how fast they should read, making a point to demonstrate with a document that had errors. I would interrupt my deliberate cadence on the error, which from the snickers I could tell they’d all heard too, asking for suggestions on correcting the mistake. After correcting the mistakes, I would start my recording again until I did a reading that didn’t have any writing mistakes (as opposed to reading mistakes, which I say are fine as long as they are corrected with a rereading).
The student responses to these assignments have been mostly positive. However, some students struggle with technology already, and they are none too eager to have to use it some more. Others resent having to do more work than they think they are supposed to do for a writing assignment. A fair amount, though, have grown to appreciate how much this technique helps them -- and not only in finding grammatical mistakes. More than one student has reported that they noticed their arguments or narratives don’t make sense when they read them out loud. My own sense is that the student progress made this semester has exceeded the student progress of previous semesters.
I should say the process isn’t a panacea. One student, who has explained in other writing projects that she is at college because her parents are forbidding her to go cosmetology school, uploads files that sound like an LP sped up to 45 rpm. I reply to her postings, asking her to slow down her reading. She has slowed down some, but not completely. Regardless, she has done the work, and while at the beginning of the semester I could barely understand one of her sentences, now she is writing papers in which there are still numbers of run-ons sentences, but clear sentences.
Another student, who is registered with our SSD (Services for Students with Disabilities) office, writes almost exclusively in simple sentences. If I assign a two-page paper, maybe I’ll get two complex sentences from him. When I listen to his readings, his voice is flat and mechanical. There were very few mistakes in his sentences to begin with. My challenge of helping him learn how to subordinate and coordinate thoughts has not been accomplished with these recording assignments. Many students have become competent and confident writers.
I have started grading the papers while listening to the students’ readings of them. When the students read at deliberate pace, I have more than enough time to highlight mistakes and begin my comments in the margins. When the information from the student is clear and cogent, I put a check next to the sentences. Again, my sense is I have never gone through so many papers giving almost nothing but checks. At least three times this semester, I’ve written on a student paper, "this is one of the best papers I have ever read in this class." I can’t remember writing that once before in my two years at Queensborough.
Recently a colleague at Queensborough stopped by my office to chat. He mentioned he had to ask someone to leave his class that day because she was using her cell phone during class. He knows of my strict cell phone policies of the past. “It just drives you crazy,” I sympathized with him.
He then noticed the headphones on my desk. “What are you listening to?” he asked. “Student papers,” I told him. I explained the project and how I was encouraging students to use their cell phones to make the recordings. “I’ve finally surrendered,” I offered, apologizing for abandoning the no-cell-phone-ever hardliners.
The generous interlocutor my colleague is, he mused, “I guess you’re right, we have to find a way to make them useful in class.” That wasn’t what I was thinking or intending, but there you go.
Jed Shahar is assistant professor in the Basic Education Skills Department of Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.
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.