Literature

This I (Somewhat) Believe

What is so fraught as the choice of the freshman reading selection -- the one book that must engage and inspire all incoming students? The single defining text that says, "Welcome to your new world -- a world of joy and sorrow, of new experiences, of possibility." The one book that representatives of anywhere from four to 40 disciplines, in hours of meetings, must agree upon. The one text that will encompass all aspects of the oft-revised mission statement and will guarantee an unprecedentedly high rate of retention.

First-year committees might be tempted to take a page, or freeze frame, from a neighboring college of mine, and choose a film for the required text, but that just seems wrong, and so on we go, in fear and trembling, confident that this time we will find the one perfect book.

We had tried this once before, several years ago. The initial goal was to agree upon a book by a woman about women (we are a women’s college -- at least by day); the final compromise was A River Runs Through It: a novella by a man about two men and fly fishing.

After abandoning the idea of a common reading experience for three years, the college decided to try again. The first-year program was high on the list of projects in the new(est) strategic plan, and the search for the perfect book was at the center. This time, the selection was to encompass five areas: leadership, civic engagement, global awareness, health and wellness, and career choices. After many lengthy debates on texts ranging from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed to Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones to mythology (“The subject is WOMAN,” its advocate proclaimed), the winner was announced: Our students’ reading experience would be This I Believe.

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women is a compilation of radio essays from both Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s program and NPR’s revival beginning in 2005 -- the authors/readers are a mix of “famous” and “ordinary.” My school isn’t alone in this choice: This I Believe may soon, if it hasn’t already done so, overtake Mitch Album’s Tuesdays With Morrie. Another positive point for this choice is that careless young students may inadvertently purchase not Jay Allison and Don Gediman’s book but instead Carlos Fuentes’ memoir, This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life.

I don’t have anything against the book. I enjoy reading short prose pieces and listening to them on the radio. (But then I also read around 100 full-length books each year, as well.) And it’s difficult to argue with a sample premise like “I believe in empathy” -- the line is from Azar Nafisi’s “Mysterious Connections That Link Us All Together” -- which is certainly important; besides, it would be churlish -- and downright unempathetic -- not to agree.

But why not put Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, with all of its connections -- instead of this radio spot -- into our students’ hands? It’s possible to argue that such a compilation exposes students -- quickly -- to a whole chorus of voices. And that is true. There’s a cacophony of voices here, on a wide range of subjects -- from the pizza dude to God; from the virtues of morning prayer to the virtues of barbecue. And any one of these entries can be consumed and digested in far less time than the 15 minutes of fame that Warhol prophesied for everyone. Skimming the table of contents is like surfing the web.

Now, not only do I enjoy reading short prose pieces in between longer works, but I also enjoy writing them and have even written and read one for the local public radio station, for a spot called “Change Is in the Air.” The biggest challenge in writing that particular essay -- a valentine for my students -- was cutting my material down to 350 words. The subject of brevity came up very early in the list of reasons that the co-chair of the committee had for choosing This I Believe: as she reminded us, our students don’t like to read.

The response here should be twofold: (1) Ah, but college is just the place to disabuse them of that notion, and (2) I have years of observational evidence to support the idea that you can help students learn to like reading. The other two reasons were the book’s emphasis on leadership, the definition of which we have struggled mightily with ever since it appeared in the mission statement (oh, for the relatively uncomplicated days of critical thinking -- and for the even earlier days preceding the mania for mission statements), and the idea that it would lend itself to a writing assignment that asks students to write their own “This I Believe” pieces.

But what I believe is that there are far better writing exercises. Indeed, if you teach freshman writing classes, or any upper-level writing classes, you are already aware that most of your students will do their best to wrench any topic around to the subject of just what it is they believe. No, a much better exercise would be to attempt to understand what someone else believes.

And a much better reading choice would be a novel or a full-length work of nonfiction. Why not make a sustained reading experience the first lesson of college? There is something engaging, enthralling, and perhaps even transforming about the experience of being swept away by the arc of a sustained narrative.

If we are going to use the freshman text to teach anything, perhaps it should be this: let’s help students realize for themselves what Mel Rusnov says at the end of her entry in This I Believe, “The Artistry in Hidden Talents”: “I believe we are transformed and connected by the power and beauty of our creativity.”

There’s another reason to choose a full-length work. With cuts in classes -- cuts in humanities courses that served not just English majors but all majors -- students have fewer and fewer opportunities for exposure to literature. If the first-year experience is going to be not only the first, but perhaps one of the last, sustained reading experiences our college students have, then let’s not allow the dialogue to end here, with bytes and mantras.

In the meantime, I have, I believe, found the perfect text for the entering students of fall 2012: Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It’s by a woman -- one who has succeeded in an area that has been far tougher for women than men to break into. It’s 273 pages, but it does include a good number of photographs, which should satisfy the advocates for brevity. It’s very funny -- and reminds us that we can make serious points without being solemn; it’s a nice model of autobiographical writing that isn’t solipsistic; and it even has some (very) wise advice about being a leader, which begins, of course, with hard work.

Author/s: 
Carolyn Foster Segal
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor of English at Cedar Crest College.

Afterglow From the MLA

I felt the need to get away, even as the pile of student papers I had to grade slowly dwindled. With final grades submitted, I still felt the impulse. I resisted as well as I could, but something within nagged me.

I considered a spiritual retreat, one to recharge and rest after a busy, even frenzied, semester. I had worked at three campuses, two writing centers, one community center. I did freelance writing. I’m not a workaholic, just a teacher trying to make ends meet. These days, it’s getting harder.

Catholic, Buddhist, ecumenical -- the retreat path did not matter. But calling and surfing for such a place, I found it was too late. Everything was filled. There was only one possibility -- in the twisting hills of Arkansas. I would have to bring my own food and get transportation from a distant airport. I appreciated the offer but felt too tired. Maybe in spring...

Then I had another thought. A whim. Just ninety minutes away, if I could get a direct flight… Could I?

I did.

I joined the Modern Language Association after 30 years in academia and flew to Philadelphia for the 2009 conference, tantalized by conference titles I had only read about before and noticing more than a few that dealt with the ups and downs of academia that I not only know but are etched on my heart. Student assistant, secretary, graduate assistant, writer/editor, teacher…

Although I was just beginning to recite poems when some of the long-term veterans joined, I’ve chalked up my flight miles in the classroom. If I had a banner across my chest like the Girl Scouts used to wear, I’d have badges for adjuncting at up to four institutions at a time, loving words, and being midwife, doula, mother to students in the classroom. A former boss called me a composition worker. Some people think people in my line of work are exploited. I call myself a professional muse.

Maybe going to a professional conference does not seem like a big deal to some. For some, it’s draining. For others, routine. For still others, a dreaded initiation or the key to a job.

I remember sitting behind my desk as a secretary in an English department in the early 1980s, hearing that people interviewed at MLA.

Over winter holidays? I thought. How strange.

“How did you like the meat market?” said a friend, hearing I had been there.

Actually, I didn’t even pack anything formal to wear. I went just to learn. Without expectation, I found myself transported back to a joy I have not felt since my undergraduate years.

“Yes, undergrad is a carefree time,” a colleague said upon patiently listening to my post-conference euphoria.

Actually, for me the undergraduate years were also full of care. But in tough times, it’s literature, art, music, drama that gives me hope, words, perspective.

“You know, those conference titles are often obscure, even ridiculed,” said another friend.

Well, I loved the sessions. Translation and Kafka. Awesome Yiddish. When will I be near Yiddish scholars again? Why study literature? Packed. Langston Hughes. Well worth the trip. Hurston screening. Couldn’t squeeze in. And others…

I’m old enough to feel like a mother to some of the presenters. And I’ve been to other conferences; I have one foot in English, one in counseling, and one in journalism. How is this possible with two feet? I keep shifting my stance, my focus, my efforts. In a world thought to be increasingly interdisciplinary, perhaps I can create a new dance. MLA, for me, was an imaginative leap. I am glad I took it.

Books, stories, and poems have added meaning to my life since I was a little girl. I was imaginative, as kids are – maybe beyond imaginative into the quirky. I “became” Cinderella and Snow White, responding not to my own name, but to the name of the character of the week. I learned French in an innovative, public elementary school and my parents spoke German. Whitman and Golding were among my beacons in junior high, with words I couldn’t utter but could understand. I devoured “the classics” my much older sisters brought home from their demanding high school. A sonnet by Shakespeare and a poem by Millay provided solace through very dark times as a teenager.

My heart further opened to and through the humanities as an undergraduate English major, even with a foot in psychology and another in other interests. I have not changed that much.

The humanities gave me some range to explore, and I majored in English for several reasons. Philosophy had beckoned, but one day I asked a question in a philosophy class and was told “that’s a question for an English class.”

In English class a few months later, a question I asked about what I now know was the teacher’s formalist analysis of The Scarlet Letter yielded an even harsher response from a teacher.

“Do you think the unexamined life is worth living?”

Teachers have bad days.

That teacher, like most of my mentors from school, is deceased now. With the strange quirks of fate, right before I began graduate school (in English), my path crossed his. “Of course I remember you,” he said. “You were the best student I ever had.”

I negotiated my way through the canon in graduate school in English, in a world before composition and rhetoric, but devising my own intuitions about the teaching of writing, and teaching writing, and beginning a career as a writer and editor.

I considered comparative literature studies in graduate school but thought that English was more -- I almost can’t type it out -- practical.

Fate landed me in a hotel room in the Loews in Philadelphia, where many of the modern language sessions were held. Just riding the elevator was fun. People entered and exited, speaking many languages.

Across the street was the Marriott and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where many English sessions were held. I jaywalked with abandon, with absolute certainty that here on this side or there on that side was where I needed to be.

This jaywalking is a metaphor for my life; as the daughter of immigrants who struggled with English, I sometimes struggle with words, too. Why else would I strive to become a writer?

In my home town, I don’t jaywalk. But what is travel to a professional conference if not an expansion of boundaries?

I befriended three women by chance, each with Ph.D.'s and following different, intriguing, winding career paths.

One had been a high school teacher for 15 years and had also taught on Indian reservations and in China.

Another, formerly on the tenure track, was derailed and maintains energetic writing and teaching.

A third, originally from China, turned out to be a presenter.

As is my wont, I asked questions of everyone I met, no matter whether scrunched in a shuttle or in an elevator. Mainly I asked, “Are you enjoying your sessions?” “Did you get what you came for?” My response to one question from a man in a uniform covered by an overcoat was a gentle, “I work here.”

Enough of my questions. MLA for me was an immersion experience, a cross-cultural journey. The academic paper sessions I attended were mind-stretching. Translation was an echoing theme, and what could be more apropos as the academe struggles to define and express itself in difficult economic times. The sessions on the state of affairs in academe reassured me that I am not alone. And the session on writing teachers who write reassured me that I am on a valid path.

I also learned, among other things, that some people perceive rifts in the MLA. Other languages over there, English over here. Full-time issues there, part-time here. Writing here, literature there.

“I don’t know if I’ll come back,” one new friend said. “Some of this feels elitist.”

If so, that is a shame. What more powerful bridge between human differences than the humanities?

I had the good fortune of encountering people, at random, who attended sessions I wanted to make but couldn’t. On two-year colleges. On analyzing “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop. On standings of academic journals. Even my missteps seemed well-orchestrated.

I ate energy bars, instant oatmeal, salmon at a French restaurant, a side of mashed potatoes for a meal, a meal in Chinatown courtesy of a spontaneous Philadelphia friend. I am too shy for cash bars, so I drank cups of tea and coffee in my room.

I’ll be paying off the trip for a while. But it was worth it.

In the three decades that seem like three days that I have spent in academia, I was a student assistant in a college of education, secretary in an English department, a graduate assistant, a publications writer, a liaison with the news media, an adjunct lecturer in three departments at one school, a teacher without walls (adjunct) at four other schools.

In this economy, I won’t be retiring or stopping learning any time soon.

When I told my teenage son I planned to go to the conference, I asked him if he knew what MLA is.

“Those are the people that make the rules I use when I have to write a paper.”

When I have taught documentation in the classroom, MLA or APA, depending on the course, I typically have pointed out that scholars in these groups are not strictly documentation experts, but explorers, researchers, lovers of learning.

Finally, I have decided to count myself among them, even if all I did was sign up.

One new friend was, to my surprise, a presenter. We shared costs of our hotel the last day. She approached me as I indulged my habit honed in a pre-ecological, pre-Internet era. I was seeking out fliers. She offered that we share costs. Why not, I thought.

I had a room with two beds. I rushed across the street again to clear off my avalanche of paper. I had the joy of listening to part of her paper the night before. And, attending her session, by sheer chance. I got a stunning view of Philadelphia from the 33rd floor.

Returning to Cleveland was, of course, a descent. And the stacks of papers are piling up again.… It’s just a few weeks after, and I’m still walking around in post-conference delirium.

Few believe me when I say there is hope for the humanities. There has to be. The most difficult times in my life, the more I have needed books, art, music, drama. I have seen the value of humanities study for students of all ages, at colleges private and public, large and small. My memoir students, some in their eighth decade of life, still turn to the written and electronic word for solace, support, and inspiration.

What did I leave behind? My wide-tooth comb and fliers I could not stuff in my carry-on. That’s all right. It’s hat weather in Cleveland -- and there’s always the Internet.

Author/s: 
Maria Shine Stewart
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.

Why 'Writing'?

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

These lines from Romeo and Juliet are often quoted to indicate the triviality of naming. But anyone who has read or seen the play through to its end knows that the names Montague and Capulet indicate a complex web of family relationships and enmities that end up bringing about the tragic deaths of our protagonists.

Lore also has it that Shakespeare's lines were perhaps a coy slam against the Rose Theatre, a rival of his own Globe Theatre, and that with these lines he was poking fun at the stench caused by less-than-sanitary arrangements at the Rose.

I write now in response to the naming of a newly created department at my large state university called "the Department of Writing and Rhetoric." This new department is being split off from the English department and given the mandate to install a new Writing Across the Curriculum program, convert adjunct positions to "permanent" instructor positions, and establish a related B.A. degree.

While the acronym WAR may seem appropriate to some of my colleagues, many of them think we have more important things to worry about than a name right now. We have also been repeatedly told in the face of previous protests that referring to Composition as Writing is a trend nationwide. Nonetheless, I believe that this title is an indication of bad faith and a negative harbinger for the work of the new department and programs like it elsewhere.

Since the announcement of this change, I attended a tenure party for a colleague in another department. Every single person I spoke with at this party assumed from the title of the new department that "all" writing would be taught there, including my field of Creative Writing. People repeatedly asked me what I thought about being in a new department, and I repeatedly corrected them as confusion spread over their faces. They couldn't understand how the Department of Writing and Rhetoric would not include the writing of fiction, poetry, and so on. I repeatedly had to say that “Writing” in this usage means Composition. They repeatedly asked me why, then, the department will be using the title Writing.

That's a very good question, and one that indicates something disturbing, not just here, but in that nationwide naming trend mentioned above and so often cited. Referring to programs in Composition by the title "Writing" indicates that this field is the authority over all meaningful types of writing – in all other fields. By implication, it implies that no other type of writing but what Composition Studies teaches is valid or important – or even exists. Both of these claims are demonstrably false, although they are the silent assumptions that often underlie Composition's use of the term Writing to describe itself.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that using the name Department of Writing and Rhetoric indicates a willingness to write badly in order to empire-build. Good writing is always about clarity and insight, precision and accuracy. Therefore, this confusing name calls into question the very quality of the writing instruction that will be given in the new department. If the department cannot and will not name itself accurately, then what does that bode for the students to be educated there?

Don't get me wrong. I also differ from some of my colleagues in that I am happy about the creation of the new department. Composition is an upstart field that, like my own of Creative Writing, has often not gotten its due. Partly this is because it stems from a remedial function -- Composition became necessary when the sons and daughters of the working class began attending colleges and universities and were not adequately prepared in the finer points of belles lettres.

Naturally, due to the fact that the background -- and the goals -- of these individuals differed from those of the upper classes that had established belles lettres, Composition began to explore and defend less artistic, more practical forms of writing. This evolution differs from that of such programs in mathematics, for instance, where remedial algebra still focuses on the same formulas as those used in advanced courses. In Composition Studies and Writing Across the Curriculum programs, there has been a focus on supplanting the literary scholarly essay as the gold standard of writing. In the past few decades, Composition as a field has worked hard to establish the legitimacy and importance of other forms of writing and their teaching. Much of this effort I admire.

I am also happy that Composition will be given resources long absent. Having taught Composition courses myself for several years, I understand the need for acknowledgment and support, even if the specifics of the plan at my university have not been widely shared or discussed and seem to me based on suspect methods. I wish the new department nothing but the best in its attempts to improve basic writing instruction for our students.

However, many in the field of Composition have also brought resentment of old wounds and insults to bear by attempting to claim that it is foundational and that it is the expert in all types of writing. Advocates for the field have accomplished this by theorizing what they do and by selling it to those in other fields as the answer to literacy. Among other things, they have also tried to change its name to something less associated with its remedial roots and more grandiose in its scope. However, it remains the case that Composition Studies does not represent a universal approach to literacy, critical thinking, or writing.

In my own field of Creative Writing, for instance, we have far different assumptions about what constitutes effective writing instruction. Admittedly, we have somewhat different purposes. But let me also point out that the rise of Composition Studies over the past 30 or 40 years does not seem to have led to a populace that writes better.

In fact, it has coincided with a time when literacy rates have dropped and where complaints about the poor writing skills of college and university graduates (especially of large public universities) have continued to rise. Obviously many complex social factors contribute to this. It is also debatable whether universities have contributed to this state of affairs because the changing methods of teaching Composition are misguided or because there simply haven't been enough resources. I'm all for giving Composition the resources it needs, respecting its right to self-determination in its field, and letting us see what happens. I am all for the general population writing better, even if it is in an instrumental and limited form disconnected from the literary traditions that have fed most love of and respect for the written word in our culture.

Beyond the details of these various professional debates, my negative reaction to the new departmental name stems from the corruption of language that is so prevalent in our society today, where advertisers and politicians and many others lie through exaggeration, omission and indirection. The best analysis of this is perhaps Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature. In it she talks about uses of language that are destructive, about language that obscures rather than clarifies, and how so often such language "tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind."

If we put the writerly education of our students into the hands of people who insist on rejecting the accurate term Composition for the grandiose and unclear one Writing, what will they learn? They will learn, I am afraid, that they can say whatever they want, even if it is sloppy, confusing, manipulative, or a knowing lie.

Misnaming this department also evokes the negative definition of the title's other half: Rhetoric. In academe we know that rhetoric can be "the study of effective use of language," but most of the world is more familiar with rhetoric defined as "the undue use of exaggeration and display; bombast." This latter definition seems apt when combined with Writing in this name.

I, for one, will never call it the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. I will call it what it actually is: the Department of Composition and Rhetoric. If its practitioners truly respected their own history, they would call it that, too. A "rose" sometimes can smell not so sweet, especially if it turns out not to be a flower at all.

Author/s: 
Lisa Roney
Author's email: 
doug.lederman@insidehighered.com

Lisa Roney is associate professor of English and coordinator for the undergraduate Creative Writing program at the University of Central Florida.

Humanities' Constituencies

Smart Title: 

WASHINGTON -- C.P. Snow’s depiction of a “gulf of mutual incomprehension” separating scientists from humanists may date to 1959, but it’s still relevant – and cited -- in discussions of the humanities in 2009. Panelists speaking Monday on “The Public Good: The Humanities in a Civil Society” cited Snow in describing a need to better bridge that gulf -- with the consequences of failing to do so exacting a real and human price, argued Patty Stonesifer, chair of the Board of Regents for the Smithsonian Institution and senior adviser to the trustees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Information Super-Library

Smart Title: 
California community college plans certificate curriculum combining traditional Great Books approach with electronic delivery.

Style: MLA, Updated.

Smart Title: 
With implications for how undergraduates write, and cite, Modern Language Association releases revised handbook for preparing research papers.

On the Chopping Block

Smart Title: 
Middlebury wants to end financial support for New England Review. Supporters of literary magazines say college demands like that could doom vital publications.

Economic Literary Realities

Smart Title: 
Crisis today should lead to reevaluation of some works about previous downturns, and a renewed focus on financial issues in literature, scholars argue.

Where There's a Will...

Smart Title: 

WASHINGTON -- Shakespeare famously affirmed that his words would live “[s]o long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,” but he never promised that they’d keep his acolytes employed. At the Shakespeare Association of America’s 37th Annual Conference last week, attendees related the familiar stories of budget cuts and fruitless job searches that now seem to emanate from every corner of academe (and elsewhere).

'A Home Elsewhere'

Smart Title: 

For over three decades, Robert Burns Stepto has been writing about and teaching African American literature. His book From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (University of Illinois Press), which focuses on several autobiographies of and novels about young black men growing up in America, was first published in 1979.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Literature
Back to Top