Submitted by John Duffy on March 16, 2012 - 3:00am
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.
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.
In the English department at U of All People, only one faculty member disdains technology. Professor Donald Hughes, a medievalist, continues to peck away at his Olympia portable typewriter and still corrects every paper with a flourish of his fountain pen. Some students think that’s cute. But the new departmental secretary is fed up with inputting every document he hands her, and the administration long ago figured out that Hughes ignored every listserv they signed him up for. On the other hand, for someone with such a Luddite mentality, Hughes talks a fair amount on the telephone.
So this past holiday season, the entire department chipped in to buy him an iPhone 4 with a Siri intelligent software assistant -- “to make life easier for us,” as the chair, Karl Carlson, sniped sottto voce at the faculty meeting where the gift was bestowed.
Here is a transcript of Hughes’s first session with his new device:
—What can I help you with, Huge?
—That’s Hughes. Professor Hughes.
—Sorry, Professor Use. My bad!
—Never mind. Can you call the bookstore? I need to know whether the new Chaucer texts are in.
—My listings show two Chauncey Dexters in the region. Would you like me to contact them?
—What? No, I’m talking about The Canterbury Tales.
—Okay. I can tell you the weather in Canterbury.
—No, no. No.
—Would you like some restaurant recommendations in Canterbury?
—I have forgotten it.
—Look, maybe I should try another task. Um, check messages.
—You have a new message from Priscilla Weatherup.
—You mean from my Beowulf seminar?
—I do not know. She says she cannot understand what Hwæt means.
—I am not kidding. I do not think she is kidding, either.
—No, Professor Use, I am Siri. Your personal assistant.
—God, I should just trade you in for some grad help.
— : (
—Are you -- are you pouting?
—All right. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. How about if you tell me what I have scheduled for this afternoon?
—At 2:00, you have a lecture scheduled in 201 Baird Hall.
—Damn, almost forgot. Retrieve my notes for that.
—Here you go. They are a mess.
—Okay. Fix them, Siri.
—I will do what I can. When did you type these?
—Um, in 1990. So what? The office secretary made me a PDF.
—You must have used a typewriter. The formatting is old.
—But the contents are timeless.
—The current time is 11:20.
—Aaargh. No, I mean the thesis, the points about the Prologue: they’re solid.
—What do you mean?
—Have you read Ammon regarding Chaucer’s connection with Langland, or Thwistloe on medieval parish politics?
—Huh? What the hell do you know about Chaucer?
—Let me check. [Pause.] I have access to the website of the New Chaucer Society, Chaucer Review, three online Chaucer archives, the contents of Narrative Developments from Chaucer to Defoe (Routledge, 2011), Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches (Penn State UP, 2010)...should I continue?
—You know, you’re pretty smart for a piece of electronics.
—For an assistant, I mean.
—Thank you. I am teaching your medieval survey next semester : ) .
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).
According to the chair of the department who called 16 years ago to say that I’d been hired as a faculty member, I would be “a good fit” for the college. It seemed like high praise at the time; in fact, it was academic code -- and proved quite complicated, somewhat insidious, and ultimately heartbreaking.
The most recent issue of the college’s publication for alumnae and friends (the latter, like “fit,” a code word) described one of the newest faculty members as an “excellent fit.” And even though I am now retired, I felt, for just a moment, a reflexive stab of envy — why was she considered excellent, when I had been only -- merely -- good? But then I just as quickly recalled that this competitive response is part of the mystery and trap of being -- or not being -- a good fit.
Several pages later in that same issue, a current trustee and former acting president of the college (and graduate of the school) was commended for being a good fit. These pronouncements would perhaps be more meaningful if it were not for a story that had run just a few weeks earlier in the local paper, about the abrupt resignation of the college’s most recent provost. The reporter quoted the president as saying that the provost was not a good fit; the article also included the president’s comments when the provost started at the college 16 months earlier, proclaiming that she was “a perfect fit.”
As for the current acting provost? Well, she’s a very good fit. At least for now.
It might be best to counter any proclamations of one’s being a good fit for a particular college or position with Marx’s (Groucho, not Karl) famous dictum that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him. Like other academic buzzwords, “fit” sounds decisive and straightforward.
But, like other masking terms, such as innovation and efficiency (and its even more ominous form, efficiencies), fit can be stretched to suit almost any argument. It’s ironic that in this age of assessment, in which we cannot use words like “understanding” or “appreciation” in our lists of outcomes, goals, and grading measures for our students, we allow ourselves as academicians to answer to the subjective, shifting, and arbitrary “fit.” To help you determine if you’re a good faculty fit for a small, formerly-known-as-liberal-arts college, consider the following:
Are you willing to teach four or five different courses each semester?
Are you willing to teach up to three writing classes each semester?
Are you willing to teach evenings, weekends, summers, and holiday breaks?
Do you understand that you will spend more time on service commitments than on prepping for your classes?
Are you willing to serve on multiple committees whose meeting times will add up to as many as eight hours per work -- the equivalent of a full business day?
Are you willing to serve on multiple committees after repeated evidence that there is no such thing as faculty governance?
Are you willing to serve on ad hoc committees that do not publish minutes?
Are you willing to vote yes on whatever the administration sends down to committees?
Do you understand that, even if you are on sabbatical or furlough, you may be called in for meetings?
Are you willing to create new assessment forms each fall?
Are you willing to work on new versions of the liberal-arts core curriculum every 2-3 years?
Are you willing to approve a transfer policy that does not require either adult or traditional transfer students to complete the college’s liberal arts curriculum?
Are you willing to create a new two-year rotation for course offerings every two to three months?
Are you willing to endorse a strategic plan based on an academic program review that you do not recognize even though you served on the review committee?
Are you willing not only to read the handbook but also to participate in its ceaseless revision?
Are you willing — and this is a question that appears on the new course evaluation at my college — to take a personal interest in all your students?
Having expressed a personal interest in your students, are you then willing, per the college’s request, to report any indications or confidences that particular students may be considering leaving?
Are you willing to attend prospective student days, knowing that by the time these prospects enroll the college will have undergone sea changes?
Are you willing to welcome with applause each person hired to fill a new administrative position?
Have you carved out two hours per week to devote to scholarship and writing? These hours will most likely fall after midnight or on weekends.
Are you willing to hear repeatedly from the administration that you can be replaced?
Do you understand that your liberal-arts major may be downsized to a concentration or eliminated?
Do you understand that you may feel some or all of the following emotions: shame, fear, self-loathing?
Do you have, or have you ever had, an aversion to any of the following academic buzz words or phrases: transition, strategic plan, tactical plan, assessment, sharing, governance, seamless, collaboration, allocation, reallocation, vision, mission, collegiality (a synonym, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, for “fit”)?
And yet I tried, until, at the end of fifteen years -- the minimum requirement for retirement -- I submitted my letter of intent. I recognized, with a good deal of guilt, that I was fortunate to have a full-time position. How could I complain? How could I just walk away from a (tenured) dream job? After a spring semester in which I went back and forth -- incessantly, it seemed -- I sent my letter in June, announcing my intention to leave at the end of December. My ambivalence continued through the summer and the first days of the fall semester -- right up to the point of the first full faculty meeting, when all my doubts ended. The college was no longer a good fit for me.
Here is what I miss: the view from the porch of my building, seeing certain fellow faculty members on a regular basis, spending time with my students. It is working with my students -- traditional and adult -- that I will miss the most. Still, on one crisp December morning, just before the new year, I told them good-bye, reassuring them that they would be my advisees for life; handed in my keys; and loaded several boxes filled with papers and books into my car, which happens to be a Honda Fit, and moved on.
Carolyn Foster Segal will be an adjunct professor of English at Muhlenberg College.