In this week’s New York Times Magazine, my colleague down the hall asks:
What does it mean for an undergraduate to pass the morning reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and the afternoon parachuting from a helicopter?
It’s a form of the question I’ve been asking myself in the year since I came here, and it’s a question she’s been asking herself much longer. I admire the way she extends the questions she poses into a meditation on the purposes of teaching, and I admire the conclusions she draws as well. Her article is the most thoughtful representation I’ve seen of what it means to teach here, of what it means to teach English here, and of what the productive complications teaching here might bring to the teaching of English. She’s working from the perspective of the teaching of literature, and some of the ways I look at concerns associated with the teaching of writing here are somewhat different — but for much of what she wrote, I found myself nodding my head and saying, “Yes, yes, yes.”
The essay well describes what we do. I’m interested to hear what you might think, reader, especially if you work in rhetoric and composition, or are at all curious about this place. Check it out.
Our students have turned in their first essay assignments, and we’re deep into grading. For me, here, the first essay is all about navigating the rhetorical situation, helping the students figure out how to closely read and respond to the writing prompt. In terms of the grade, it’s fairly low-stakes, and my responses tend to be in the my-experience-as-a-reader mode but also attempt to illustrate to students the alignments and gaps between how they performed and the task they were set.
So a number of us, military and civilian, met at the Officer’s Club yesterday afternoon to unwind over a few pitchers and compare notes. One instructor was upset: he’d had seven Fs in a single section, and didn’t know how to account for it; wondering whether there was something wrong with his teaching or the way he posed the assignment, or how his students could so misread what was asked of them.
Another instructor posed an analogy that I’m not sure whether to like or dislike: people who teach writing, he proposed, like to teach writing for the same reasons that people go to NASCAR races. They love the skill that they see, the persistence and mastery of technique — but there’s also the love of the wreck, seeing something go incredibly and colossally wrong into a huge, end-over-end tumbling fireball. As he was saying this, I wanted to stop him, to interrupt and say no, that’s such a misguided, punitive model of instruction, that’s not what we want — but he took the analogy and made a turn into Mina Shaughnessy territory, proposing that the appeal of the wreck is in investigating its causes, seeing how it happened, how it could have happened, examining its conditions of possibility.
Maybe it’s an old or facile or obvious insight for those of us who teach writing. But right now, as I work through getting first essays back to students, it’s a useful reminder, and I think I can work with that. Reading writing as a way of investigating the conditions of possibility involved in its production.
I met with a group of seniors today; students I’m mentoring in their writing projects as they apply for certain nationally-known graduate scholarships.
There’s a lot of interest among these soon-to-be Army officers, as one might hope and expect, in international relations. Perhaps less expected was the interest taken in international relations in conjunction with development economics.
But when one of the intelligent and well-read young officers-to-be elaborated upon a claim in his essay by proposing to us that the American campaign to end global terror might most effectively begin by seeking to remedy two of terror’s dominant causal economic factors — entrenched third-world poverty and gross international economic inequality — I steepled my fingers to hide my grin.
“You might want to put that in there,” I said.
It’s only September, but I’m already deep into my second year as an assistant professor, and I’m feeling a bit at sea. My first year, I was protected; given the space to adapt to my institution and its habits and quirks, its possibilities and limits. Here, now, since mid-August, I’ve been plunged into committee and mentoring and extracurricular and planning work that sucks time away from my scholarship in far more concrete and visible and obligatory ways than the unfamiliarity of my first year did. Certainly, September is a particularly bad month, what with various mandatory government three-hour training session foolishnesses upon which I won’t elaborate, save to say that the alcohol and drug abuse prevention briefing began with a lecture on the dangers of absinthe, and went downhill from there. Would that I had the leisure for such dangers: I’m finding that I feel best when my weeks at the office run from about 7:15 to 5:30, and we’ll see how much that schedule lets me get done.
It looks to be a busy year, and while the book is gestating, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get an actual good solid start on it — for various professional reasons — until spring 2009.
So of my good rhet/comp readers, I’ll ask: is that too late, for somebody hired as an assistant prof in 2006?