The Syllabus as Ossuary

The common and ongoing complaint is that first-year composition (FYC) is a repository of dead forms. In composition’s associated disciplines in English studies, critical examinations of writing and reading technologies ossify into periodized media studies, and in first-year composition, radical experimentations in how college students continue to learn to write well become the formeldahyde frog in the wax-backed metal tray from Biology 101, its belly razored open and skin peeled back so that students might safely identify the intestines, kidneys, heart, and probe around inside, perhaps a little grossed-out by the process, but able to name its components and mark them on a final quiz.

The formeldahyde frog masquerades as object of inquiry, even inasmuch as everyone knows that the annual and ongoing mass death of millions of appropriately-sized frogs serves only the purposes of a school exercise that will be swiftly forgotten. The research essay in its current commonly accepted form is the frog with its belly-flaps pinned back, poked around upon in JSTOR and ProQuest and the Library of Congress subject and keyword headings like well-preserved amphibious digestive and evacuative systems investigated by the earnest and industrious student, indicating little more to that student than this is where food goes in and this is where poop comes out.

To shift metaphors: the research essay assignment is pedagogy as archaeology. In the information age, I am largely in agreement with the common and ongoing complaint about first-year composition pedagogy and dead forms, especially as that complaint indicts the research essay. As much as anyone else, I am guilty of teaching the dead form, the corpse of the beloved, knowing all too familiarly the workings of the forms of library research I insist to myself that students must know. Even if I frame the research assignment as “inquiry” or “documented argument,” even if I congratulate myself on helping students to see that writing research means something beyond the assemblage of regurgitated stale quotations about innovative environmental applications for hemp and cannabis ash or the burial habits of ancient Egyptians, I am still simply trying to animate a cadaver or vivify a golem, making the body of my own knowledge do what I want, and inflicting that upon the students in my class.

Yes, but: Doesn’t it operate as an introductory form? Doesn’t it do work that helps prepare students for other more sophisticated tasks? Doesn’t it help alert students to modes beyond Google of navigating our rapidly-expanding tombs of information?

It could. I wrote about this challenge — about the essay as database, the database as essay — in 2007, but I’ve been thinking it about it since 1998, when I was working on a Microsoft Access database during my day job and taking an evening research methods seminar with another young graduate student named Becca, who had a complex journalistic research project she was undertaking and was looking for a way to manage it as part of her class project, and I suggested building a database. I don’t know if she took my suggestion, but that woman was Rebecca Skloot, whose research project became The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Part of what’s so impressive to me about Rebecca’s book is that it attends deeply to research as an evolving process: she talks very carefully about how she’s doing it. I’d like to see more of what Becca does in the first-year composition research project assignment.

My FYC students begin their annotated bibliography essay tomorrow, their second essay assignment, as a lead-in to their third, which is ostensibly the research paper assignment. I love the perspective I heard from a colleague yesterday, who posed the annotated bibliography as edited collection, complete with introduction and conclusion: yes, I said, that’s it. That’s the production of new knowledge, focused enough to be interesting, acknowledging its antecedents, edgy enough to push the boundaries. I’ve been reading a lot about information these past few years, and the idea I keep returning to is that information is the work and process of building itself, and as the asset itself that gets exchanged, aggregated, built upon. Information, and the work of research, is labor become capital.

The Syllabus as Ossuary

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