What you’re supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry, that was remotely close to the model he’d given them. More often their writing got worse. It seemed as if every rule he honestly tried to discover with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he’d never come across the rule in the first place…A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phaedrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to work the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it sounded right, and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculation, because that the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn’t pour. But how’re you supposed to teach something that’s not premeditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement. He just took the text and commented on it in an unpremeditated way and hoped the students would get something from that. It wasn’t satisfactory (156).
Another thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric, which had supposedly been done away with but was still around. This was the old slap-on-the-fingers-if your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies…In Montana, however, it didn’t have this effect at all. It identified one, instead, as a stuck-up Eastern ass (162).
In my Craft of Fiction class last week we were discussing the prescriptivism of textbooks in general, and of our textbook in particular, and what the implications of prescriptivism are for us as learners and writers. And I thought back to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
How do you avoid being a “stuck-up Eastern ass” and still be coherent? How do you “teach something that’s not premeditated?” I think we’ll be discussing this more as the course progresses….
Last Tuesday I conducted a 22-Minute Draft in my general literature classes, as a warm-up for the upcoming midterm exam. I commented about my class on Facebook (you all need to friend me, you know? Then you'd know about this already), and several people asked what a 22-Minute Draft was/is…
So. The 22-Minute Draft is an exercise I came up with the first semester I taught composition at Texas A&M. I later wrote about it in an essay I wrote for a grad-school pedagogy class….
…The students I identified as resentful (and, really, I kind of identified with those students, too) seemed to be all hanging in there, and the more-willing participants actually seemed to be having fun, but still there was stress and anxiety over the upcoming major assignments. Students asked about them in class, and a few even came by my office, and the questions were all pretty much the same: “What should I write about? How should I get started?” Our required text had an elaborate series of steps students should take, a complicated process of pre-writing and outlining that to me seemed nothing more than absurd and obsessive. I couldn’t in good conscience tell them to look to the book. Nobody sane writes like that.
Robert Pirsig writes:
… (H)e became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation, because that’s the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look (156).
On a Sunday night I came up with an idea…I went into class the next day and told the students that they were going to write their paper in class-- right then. I told them to get out six sheets of paper. I had them ponder their topics for a couple of minutes. Then I set them to writing for twenty minutes straight. Every three or four minutes I had them turn the page and continue writing on a fresh, empty sheet of paper. The object was to get six pages of writing done in twenty minutes. I yelled at them if they slowed down. I told them to go faster, and faster. I told them that the object for them was not to think but to write.
The results of this were—and always have been—positive. About two-thirds of the students use what they produce in class as an elaborate outline for their formal papers. The other third seem to lose interest in their topics, and that’s a positive thing, too, I think: the students realize that their topic won’t hold up as the basis for a decent paper, and so they have to go looking for another, stronger topic. As this exercise evolved, I’ve expanded it from the original and totally arbitrary 20 minutes, to 22 minutes. I break it down to 5 minutes for the first and last pages—for the introduction and conclusion, and 3 minutes for each of the middle pages. (We take extra time later to go over citations and quotes and other necessities.) The basic thing this exercise stresses is to get words down on the page, words and ideas that can be happily jumbled and confused and completely ephemeral. Once there, the words can be mulled over and revised, and turned into something worthwhile.
My method has changed a little since I wrote that essay. I now run the exercise in 22 minutes and four pages--6 minutes for first and last, and 5 minutes for second and third.
And the thing is, it works. I’ve even started using it in my own nonfiction writing—I write for 20 or so minutes straight, then take a break for the rest of the hour, then write again. It works. The words come--still, often happily jumbled and confused. But still they come. The words won't desert you.
From an essay I wrote:
"...even the dullest book I have ever been forced to read, Thomas C. Smith’s Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization: 1750-1920, was, in a distant way, about life."
I've held onto this sad book as an artifact of dullness or whatever, but I'm not holding onto to it any more.
It's not making the move to Kansas....
When I worked at the IRS I learned to be flexible. There were many times when the Section Chief would suddenly erupt from her office and rumble across the floor and announce that production on the programs for 1040 or 1040-A or prior years or whatever was falling behind and had to be kicked up and shifted, and so we managers would scramble around reassigning work to the transcribers, setting up new quality review schedules, listening to the transcribers complain…it was a lot of work, and it changed all the time. We had to improvise. We had to be flexible.
That was a long time ago. Yet flexibility came in handy here at the beginning of this semester at Texas A&M. I was scheduled to teach four sections of composition, a class I’ve taught many times before, and I had my syllabus prepared and my books ordered and I was ready get in the classroom do some educating.
But when I got down to campus on the first day of classes, everything changed.
One of our colleagues had been hospitalized the day before, and was out for the semester, and I was suddenly assigned to teach his classes. So three of my comp sections were taken away, and I was given two sections of intro to creative writing and one section of advanced creative writing.
It was time for me to be flexible, to improvise. The two sections of intro weren’t much of a problem—it’s a class I’ve been teaching now for about six years, and I know what to do. But I’d never had an advanced class before.
During a job interview last winter, the chair of the search committee at a nice SLAC asked me how I would teach an advanced class. It was something I had given a little thought to, some vague thought, but not hardly enough vague thought. I heard the question, and had a quick flashback to my own undergraduate education in creative writing. Back in the day I had the same professor for the intro to fiction writing class, and for the advanced workshop. And you know what? It was the same class! We read the same book, we had the same assignments, we used the same damn syllabus with only the course title and the due dates changed! In retrospect, that kind of sucked.
And there I was on the phone for a job interview, holding my phone in my hand, a wave of sadness and regret washing over me. I suddenly wished I’d had better classes as an undergrad. I felt cheated. I said to the search committee, “Well, I guess an advanced class should be different than an intro class….”
It was a horrible, vague, mumbling answer--a moment when I wasn't able to improvise!--and of course I didn’t get the job.
But, now, on the hectic first day of a new semester, I was suddenly given a chance to do something new.
Most fiction classes at the college level, intro or advanced, concentrate on short stories, which makes a kind of sense: classes are always constrained by time, and so if you concentrate on short stories you can read a variety of works by a variety of writers, and students can produce several stories in a semester. However, this traditional approach disregards the truth that the short story is a difficult genre with a tight, restrictive structure, and that students can become frustrated by an inability to master it. Also, the traditional approach ignores the fact that literature is more than short stories.
So, faced with a new class to put together and having only about a day to do it, I decided was to do something different. I decided that we would write “extended narratives”—novellas or short memoirs, the beginnings of full-length novels or memoirs, or perhaps a series of tightly connected short stories. I set students the goal of writing 20,000 words over the course of the semester. At the end of the semester, students will revise the first 15-20 pages of their extended narrative and submit that for a grade. I’m also giving them an outlining assignment, and they’ll give presentations on the readings.
The full syllabus is here on my teaching page, along with my comp syllabus and my intro to cw syllabus and a few other documents.
Two weeks into the semester, I’m pleased with this class. I think it’s going to work out well. I’ll certainly be posting updates….
Things to look for:
Novelist/Professor Cathy Day is teaching a novel class this semester at Ball State University. You can read about it on her personal blog, The Big Thing, and on her class blog #amnoveling. She’s doing thoughtful, important work.
A wonderful book on flexibility and improvisation is Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. Essential reading for all teachers and writers.
Our semester at Texas A&M begins tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to getting started and meeting all the new Young Scholars. These are the books we’ll be reading in class….
For my two sections of composition:
§ Modern Language Association. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: Modern Language Association, 2009.
§ Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. New York: Penguin, 2006.
§ Miller, Char. Fifty Years of the Texas Observer. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2004.
My experience as a composition student took place many years ago, but it continues to traumatize me. Our professor was an old fart whose pedagogy was based on reading the comp handbook out loud. Yeah. No kidding. Reading the handbook out loud. For the whole 50 minutes we would read aloud fascinating factoids about comma splices and sentence fragments. I hated that book, and I hated the class, and I hated the professor, and I go on hating them: every time I teach comp I have evil flashbacks, a sort of Post-Traumatic Comp Disorder. (I elaborated on this disaster of a class in an essay, “Comp: a Personal and Pedagogical Narrative,” which is scheduled to be published in an anthology at some point next year).
I guess that ancient class left me with some lingering disgust or distrust of composition books—I don’t even like thinking about them. Still, I’ve got to use something, I guess, and so I started looking around for a basic comp handbook. And then I was totally shocked and appalled—the prices! They’re ridiculous! I see no reason to force students to spend a fortune on a book that will be used as little more than a reference. (Really, does anyone actually buy these things for the exercises? Can’t you come up with your own?)
So I turned to the good ol’ MLA Handbook. It has most of the necessary information the Young Scholars need (anything else they can get off Purdue OWL), and at a more or less reasonable price.
My Freshman Year, by “Rebekah Nathan,” is a book I’m looking forward to teaching, even though I’ve never met anyone who actually likes it—including me. I read it through in pretty much a single sitting, and found it quite frustrating and annoying and depressing. At the same time I think the author does raise some interesting questions about the culture of students at a university, and I hope that the Scholars—who will probably dislike this book as much as me or anyone else—can use it as a starting point for reflecting on their own college experience. (Next semester I might add Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, another book I didn’t much care for, to the list to go along with Nathan. The YSs could then mount a defense of their generation and its use of technology).
We’ll also be using one book I like very much. Fifty Years of the Texas Observer, edited by Char Miller, is an excellent collection of well-written, short essays about the place we live. I always enjoy teaching this book, and it seems to go over pretty well.
For my multi-genre creative writing class, I chose the following books:
§ Addonizio, Kim. Ordinary Genius. New York: Norton, 2009.
§ Casares, Oscar. Brownsville. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2003.
§ Fountain, Carrie. Burn Lake. New York, Penguin, 2010.
§ Singleton, George. Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 2009.
§ White, Lowell Mick. Long Time Ago Good. College Station: Slough Press, 2009.
Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius does a terrific job of de-mystifying poetry. It’s great—a generous and open discussion of how poems get made. I talked a bit with Kim last spring at AWP, and told her how I used her book. “That’s what the book is for,” she said. Well, yeah! I use it in my prison classes, too…I think the world of this book.
Oscar Casares’s Brownsville is a wonderful story collection set in an area of our state—our nation—that is often overlooked. It’s great when I get a Young Scholar from the Valley who says, “I didn’t know you could write about Brownsville!” It’s almost even better when a YS from the suburbs of Dallas says the same thing. It’s a book full of revelations.
Last spring I had my book order almost ready to send out—had everything except the poetry selection—when I went to Carrie Fountain’s reading in Austin. By the second poem I knew I wanted to teach her book, Burn Lake—a collection of very tight, well-observed poems about New Mexico. This is going to be fun.
George Singleton’s Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds is a cool collection of aphorisms about the writing process. It’s funny, too, with charming little drawings to illustrate the points he makes. The advice is good, the presentation effective. I’ve listed this as “Recommended” in semesters past, and have now kicked it up to “Required.”
Oh. Yeah. And we’re covering one of my books, too, Long Time Ago Good. At first I worried a little about the morality of requiring my own book, but I came to the conclusion that it was more or less okay. This is the second semester I’ve used it. I try to walk the Scholars through the stories, pointing out the decisions I made at different stages of composition. It works, I think.
Stuff to look for:
Kim Addonizio’s website.
Oscar Casares’s website
George Singleton’s website
Purdue University Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL)—a great resource for teachers and students
Carrie Fountain’s website