NASCAR Teaching

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.

NASCAR Teaching

5 thoughts on “NASCAR Teaching

  • September 26, 2007 at 6:28 am

    I’ve been chewing on this one for a few days, especially since I teach in “Mina Shaughnessy territory.” In comp classes, I don’t see student drafts as “wrecks,” really. And I hope I don’t sound like an addlepated old gal, but in Basic Writing, I expect a certain level of error, so I’m not shocked when it happens. I feel more like the neighborhood mechanic patiently explaining why the engine blew out and how to take care of it.
    The ‘conditions of possibility’ are something we talk about all semester long (though not in quite the same terms). But I’m not teaching at a highly competitive institution where FC expectations run high, and a handful of F’s can seem like a massive car wreck.
    It’s a great metaphor, though. Are we, as instructors, mere spectators? part of the driver’s pit crew, or the judges? Or all of the above?

  • September 27, 2007 at 2:22 am

    When I used to teach technical writing, I often referred to “From the Ashes of Disaster Grow the Roses of Success,” a song from Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang.

    Letting students bomb completely on an early, low-weight assignment helps them learn that I’m supposed to be teaching them a process.

  • September 28, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    My mantra is it’s okay if your first draft sucks. I guess that means I expect students to flame out early on. The problem, though, is they have expectations of perfections, an in A-level writings, whether realistic or not. It’s not that carnage is a problem to me, but that many students can’t see that it is carnage and that carnage is okay.

  • September 28, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    I think the concern wasn’t with the early drafts but with the final drafts, even after developing, feedback, revision, editing, and proofreading, and sometimes it’s with error, but more often it’s the convolutions of language wedded to struggles with contradictory claims complicated by inappropriate and misunderstood evidence — a nice parallel to the gloriously complicated car Dennis invokes, with all of those components interacting. So in the case of the final draft, it’s the instructor using slo-mo multi-angle video replay of the car as the nose dips and the left front tire bows outward and then the tie arm breaks and the corner of the front bumper catches the tarmac and tips the back of the car into the air and it begins to tumble end over end and clips another car, sending that car spinning out toward the wall — and the instructor has to piece together what happened and how. In another way (since it’s the start of the new TV season), I think of the way that a domain of rhetoric — forensics — is now known most widely as what Crime Scene Investigators do, in the way they minutely dissect a crime scene and put together multiple forms of evidence (blood spatter, gunshot residue, insects, audio and video, hair and fiber, DNA, ballistics, chemical and material analysis, cadavers, et cetera) to reconstruct a causal chain of events. But that’s another unfortunate parallel. Still, it also evidences (that word again) the fascination with what happens in a process; for us, the fascination with the way students think.

  • September 28, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    I wasn’t thinking later drafts, but I do know what you mean, especially when you’ve worked with a student on early drafts and they come back with something that at first blush is bizarre on a later draft, and the first response is “how in the world did that happen?” Then the replay begins.

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