Monthly Archives: November 2004

Composition’s Economic Silence

Our word “liberal” — as in the term “liberal education” — comes from the Latin root word for “free,” liber, via its derivative liberalis, meaning either generous or noble, or, more broadly, pertaining to or worthy of a free man. It is important to note, however, that the Roman class status of the free man (a citizen) was quite different from the class status of the freedman (a former slave). In literature, the most famous Roman freedman (libertinus) is the wealthy and hilariously vulgar Trimalchio of Petronius’s Satyricon, a character easily recognizable even today as embodying the most distasteful aspects of the nouveau riche: massive economic privilege combined with a complete lack of cultural sophistication. According to Harold Johnston’s 1903 The Private Lives of the Romans, “neither the freedman nor his son could attain true social equality with the free citizen,” despite the fact that

The free persons employed in the offices of the various magistrates were mostly libertini. They were paid by the State, and, though appointed nominally for a year only, they seem to have held their places practically during good behavior. This was largely due to the shortness of the term of the regular magistrates and the rarity of re-election. Having no experience themselves in conducting their offices, the magistrates would have all the greater need of thoroughly trained and experienced assistants. The highest class of these officials formed an ordo, the scribae, whose name gives no adequate notion of the extent and importance of their duties. All that is now done by cabinet officers, secretaries, department heads, bureau chiefs, auditors, comptrollers, recorders, and accountants, down to the work of the ordinary clerks and copyists, was done by these ‘scribes.’ (The “Civil Service”)

The libertini carried on the economic work of the Roman empire, and yet for that reason, they were considered not to have the quality of being “liberal”: according to Volume 1 of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia, “The expression artes liberales [. . .] does not mean arts as we understand the word at this present day, but [. . .] are called liberal [. . .] because they serve the purpose of training the free man, in contrast with the artes illiberales, which are pursued for economic purposes” (Knight, Lafort, Farley). Precisely because the liberal arts have no immediate practical or economic utility, they are considered appropriate for those fortunate enough to have been born of high (free) social status, and inappropriate for those who have attained social status via upward class mobility: they are declared to be somehow above economic concerns because of the very way in which they are embedded within economic concerns.

After two thousand years, we still use the word “liberal” in describing the “liberal arts education” offered by many elite colleges and universities. Clark Kerr quotes Cardinal Newman’s vision of a liberal arts university education that “aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspirations, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political powers, and refining the intercourse of private life” (3). According to Kerr, such an understanding came out of Newman’s experience at Oxford, and constituted the historically English model of the university dedicated to providing education for men of culture. At less elite colleges and universities, we understand — at institutions perhaps unable to rise above merely economic concerns — the liberal arts are referred to as the “humanities.” This is the term used by Sharon Crowley, who remarks that “The point of a humanist education, after all, is to become acquainted with the body of canonical texts that humanists envision as a repository of superior intellectual products of Western culture” (13), or Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been thought and said.” In these characterizations of a certain type of education, we see still the Romans’ strange tension of declaring something free from the scope of economic concerns because of its very relation to those concerns.

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My Big Fat Lie

I think I’m starting to miss that regular rhythm of Friday Non-Dissertational entries I had going. A while back, as an audience analysis lead-in exercise for their persuasive/documented essays, I gave students the following scenario:

You stayed out really late last night partying with your friends, and — as a result — you completely slept through this morning’s College Writing midterm that was worth 40 percent of your grade. Write a note explaining what happened to:

  • Your favorite grandparent.
  • The Undergraduate Dean, in the hopes of staying off academic probation.
  • Your best friend, who last night kept telling you, “Come on, just one more.”

Students immediately asked the obvious question: Can we lie? (My shocked-sounding response: Would you lie to your favorite grandparent?)

Anyway: after that exercise, and in the slowly escalating end-of-semester crunch, I thought we’d do a (hopefully) fun bit of low-stakes writing at the start of class today. I offered the following weblog prompt: tell the biggest, most absolutely ridiculous pack of lies you can come up with. And I must say, I was impressed with the creativity and humor of the results, which are linked from the main course weblog at

But the reason I mentioned the Friday Non-Dissertatonal stuff above is that in writing along with them, I found myself kinda struck by inspiration for this thing that was more a tall tale than a bunch of lies, and I just had to get it out. And, well, I’m proud of it. There’s a bit of family folklore about my dad throwing a rock through one of the windows in the house, and when Granny asked him why he did it, he told her that the wind blew it out of his hand. I like to flatter myself that my better stories come from a similar impulse towards fiction. So, hey: maybe it’s not as good a lie as the ones that some students wrote, but I had fun doing it today. Check it out.

That Recessive Trait

In my seventh-grade biology class, I found out that I inherited just about every recessive gene trait possible: left-handed, widow’s peak (well, you could tell when I had hair), that weird thing with the tongue, and being color-blind. (I don’t think being a Scorpio is a recessive gene trait, but I could be wrong.)

So I’m working under the assumption that I’ve got a fancy new WordPress-styled layout in shades of gray and black and toxic green, and I’m hoping that somebody might please let me know if I’m horribly, embarassingly wrong; if it all looks, like, brown. Or purple.

Or, you know, if it clashes with what you’re wearing.

Assignment Sequences

In thinking about my own teaching practices, I’m hoping I might get some responses from other first-year composition teachers to a few questions. First, how many folks teach something resembling a ‘personal essay’ (as opposed to, say, a research paper or a persuasive essay or a response to a text or a rhetorical analysis or what-have-you) as the first unit in a semester? Second, how many folks teach a variety of fairly identifiable genres, like those I mentioned in my first question? Third, for those who do teach something resembling a ‘personal essay’ as the first unit in the semester, what are your reasons for teaching it first — and for those who don’t teach it at all, what are your reasons for not teaching it? Fourth, how many folks teach a sequence of assignments that asks students to make major choices about which essays they will significantly revise and which essays they will leave behind?

I know there’s considerable literature in our field devoted to this topic, and since my first year of teaching, I’ve felt like I’ve had a decent sense of what the arguments were for the various practices, even as my own practices changed and shifted and evolved according to what I’d read, to my sense of my students’ shifting needs, and to institutional pressures — but in the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing some significantly recurring phenomena in student essays that make me call some of that into question. I’m still trying to sort this stuff out, so I can’t really be more particular right now, but just hearing about what other people do, and why, would help me to put what I’ve been seeing in student papers into perspective vis-a-vis my own teaching practices.

That said, I guess I’d better at least offer a little bit of rationale: for the past four years or so, institutional pressures (I’m at the UMass Amherst Writing Program, former home of Walker Gibson and Peter Elbow) have turned me towards seeing the personal essay as a way of asking a student to take an initial stake in the writing that the course asks them to do, and towards seeing the personal essay as something accessible and open. Such a perception understands the personal essay as somewhat loose, rambling, or discursive; the diametrical opposite of the impersonal cut-and-dried five-paragraph theme. The essay sequence I’ve been attempting to refine since 2000 moves from introspection to public engagement and back again, and I’ve lately begun to wonder if such a sequence is based on some problematic metaphors of writerly ‘development’ that simply don’t work — too blithely Lacanian? too literalist a take on Dewey and Britton? — for college-age students, especially in an age when process pedagogy has long since become widespread even in secondary education.

This semester, I’m calling the first essay “Experiences, Contexts, Perceptions”; from the title, I hope, a fairly obvious request for students to examine how what they’ve lived and where they come from affects their view of the world and others’ views of them. I ask them to incorporate some of these observations into the next two essays, “Reading and Writing Difficult Texts,” which is my attempt to revise Peter Elbow’s take on the back-and-forth between the personal and the textual. The next assignment, called “Subjects and Perspectives,” is an attempt to take the personal and textual work of those first two essays into the public sphere with a rhetorical analysis of the range of discourse on a particular subject, and serves as pre-writing for the following assignment, which asks students to take a personal position on the subject they’ve chosen and use documentation to support that position. So, clearly, I’m favoring certain kinds of writing as somehow more ‘basic’ and others as somehow more ‘advanced’ — and I’ve lately begun to see that as problematic, especially in the way I feel the need to offer certain similar responses to so many student papers.

I haven’t mentioned the types of assignments I taught when I was at Pitt, but if you’ve encountered Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading, you might have some sense of how the institutional pressures there were radically different from the pressures here at UMass. So maybe one more (perhaps deceptive) question: there, at Pitt, first year composition was called “General Writing.” Here, they call it “College Writing.” What might that say — and how is the first-year composition course ycleped at your institution?

Tearing My Scant Hair Out

I’ve been struggling with this for days now: trying to get WP to show a list of 20 recent comments — yes, since I think the dialogue is the most important part of this weblog — in the left-side menu. I’ve gone to the WP wiki, I’ve gone to the forums, and I’m finally flippin exasperated. Why would WP not include an easy option to display comments in their setup? Why am I teaching myself PHP, using the legacy my-hacks file, and getting errors when I try to do something as simple as get other peoples’ responses to show up as links in the sidebar? This is infuriating, and I’m so ready to go back to MT.

One of these days, I’m going to set up a writing course for coders and programmers who are solipsistic and arrogant enough to write their own documentation: it’s going to be called, “Audience, Audience, Audience, Audience, Audience, Audience: An Important, Common, and Much-Neglected Concern, and Yes, This Means You.” SixApart’s staff flunked a long time ago — that’s how they make their money, by taking your cash to do an installation for you after you get bogged down in their byzantine linguistic flow-charts — and, well, the WordPress folks are well on their way, mostly for structural reasons. Like making would-be users chase down non-workable information all over FAQs, support fora, and wikis.

After all, displaying a list of comments on a weblog is pretty esoteric. Who’d ever want to do that?

I’m SO Not a Designer

OK, so it’s a little less ugly, now that I’ve borrowed atthe404′s Vesuvius layout. Haven’t ever worked with PHP before, so while the learning curve isn’t exactly steep, it’s still making my head hurt. Had to try a couple different hacks to show recent posts; I’m sure I’ll have to try a couple more to show recent comments. And I’m still not sure I like the layout; I want to get the pictures back on the left and the links and stuff back on the right, because — knowing that people read left to right — I want readers to see the attention-getting stuff first (the tall skinny semi-abstract greenish pictures), and then get to the meat of the entries, with the admin business (the links and such) saved for last, on the right. And that CSS skullduggery will take a non-technically-oriented person like myself a little bit of doing — so, yes, this layout is gonna mush around some over the next few weeks. But the green and gray will stay. I like the green and gray.

What else is going on? Not doing much reading; trying to get some chapter-drafting done. The cats are at peace, and Dad’s said that — after a long, long time — he’ll be happy to host the extended-family Christmas Day dinner downtown again, which means I’m in for big-time cooking and cleaning duties. Having inherited my mom’s recipe collection and some of her cookware — including a molded English pudding steamer — I’m on deck for doing the steamed-for-six-hours holiday plum pudding, so I’m going through a series of dry runs, making sure I can do this big involved recipe right when the time comes. (The recipes are all like, “Make sure the suet melts before the flour particles burst,” and I’m like: huh?) I’ve never asked a butcher for beef suet before; never even thought I’d do such a thing, especially not for a dessert. But that’s the odd thing, I guess: the radical disparities in the class backgrounds of my mom’s side of the family and my dad’s side of the family produced the strangest mishmashes of holiday meals; English puddings and birds cooked within birds alongside black-eyed peas or collard greens boiled with ham hocks. With my mom’s family, you had stilton and scallion puffs as an hors d’ouvre; with my dad’s family, you had pickled pig’s ears as a snack. Popovers versus cornbread; grits versus grapefruit; “highballs” served at 6 p.m. on Friday versus a Pabst Blue Ribbon with lunch after you mowed the back pasture.

I learned about cars from my dad. The first car that was mine’ to drive was Granny’s farm-use 1974 GMC Custom 1500: a big, old, rusted-out pickup truck, painted Creme de Menthe green. To work on the engine, you had to actually climb inside the hood and sit on the wheel well with your head bowed. The do-it-yourself orientation I learned from driving and fixing that truck has really informed the way I approach Web technologies: while knowing I’m a complete novice, I’m not too afraid to climb in under the hood and tinker a bit. (My greatest victory with that GMC was using two scraps of pine 2 x 4 and an empty plastic oil bottle to get the engine to limp home a hundred miles from Harper’s Ferry.) But see, until lately, until checking out my mom’s handwritten recipes and comparing them to the dogeared and wine-stained pages in her Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Fannie Farmer, Julia Child, and other cookbooks, I hadn’t figured out that she did the same thing in her cooking. In that realization, stratifications of class and gender, men’s work and women’s work, seem to collapse in odd ways.

I’m wondering how those stratifications might play out in Web work. Historically, doing code has been a more male-dominated thing, and design as a field has had (a few) more women — does that divide point to a class divide, as well? Is design more upper-class, more stylish, more chic? Do we expect coders to have dirt under their fingernails?

The Ugly Stick

As you can see, I’ve finally changed over to an open-source, valid-code solution, and I wonder if the WordPress folks purposely make the default install this ugly in order to encourage people to tinker with it. And, yeah, that’s what I’ll be continuing to work on tonight; trying to adapt my old three-column CSS layout to this thing. I’m hoping the comment spam will abate some, too. Anyway: poke around, kick the tires, let me know what’s broken?

Waiting in the wings: some more stuff on Freirean critical pedagogy as enacted in the U.S., with some contrasting perspectives from Richard E. Miller and Bill Thelin, since a valuable recent exchange with the latter spurred my memory and got me thinking about the differing cultural and economic courses of action by others who’ve written on the topic.

Twoscore Less a Finn

With apologies to Dr. H.S.T.

Just like every year, I’m at the bar. I’ve finished my Piper-Heidsieck cocktail, and I’m working on a Bombay Sapphire martini, rocks and olives, since it’ll probably be a while before I have the chance again. There’s the screech of tires out front and then the concussive glass-and-metal whump. Silence for a few seconds, and then a dim hubbub until I hear her braying: “I don’t care if you were parking, asshole; this is a one-way street! Do you see this? Do you know what this is? This is a Colt .50 caliber Desert Eagle — now move your vehicle, citizen!”

I look straight ahead when she storms in. She takes the stool next to mine, asks for a 30-year Laphroaig, straight up, and puts down a twenty. “So you’ve still got the license,” I venture.

“Course I do,” she says. She waves off the change.

“Did you actually brandish it?”

She takes a swallow of the scotch. “He’s the only one who saw it. So?”
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