A Portrait of the Artist as Activist: “in the sunlit prison of the American dream”

Standing in Starbucks a few days ago, just a couple weeks after I discovered honey in the sweetener and creamer station, I was peeling open a packet of honey when three lines came to me:

we rape the bees
because they are sweet

because we can

My poet-self writes this way; lines come to me, and I usually type them into Notes on my iPhone and email that to myself to work on when I have time.

Driving to my university office, I rehearsed those lines over and over, priming myself for the rest of the poem to appear—to reveal itself to me.

As a poet, I am often asking myself and the lines that come: What is this about?

I have preferred honey over processed sugar as a sweetener for about three decades, but over the last year, I discovered that among vegans, eating honey is a serious debate; many vegans do not eat honey.

It is a matter of consent.

And while some find veganism an easy target of ridicule, I see such commitments as powerful contexts of living one’s ethical and political beliefs.

Bees and honey, then, were buzzing in my unconsciousness as a political and ethical dilemma—one further complicated by my own sense that I wanted to write about worker bees as a metaphor for workers in the time of Trump.

The tension, however, became how to write a poem that remained a poem while it seemed to call out to be a political statement.

My foundational poetic muse is e.e. cummings, but my single poetic standard is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” a magical diamond of a poem. Concision and precision, undeniable as a paper cut (like William Carlos Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say”).

The final version of we rape the bees (because we can), I hope, fulfilled that goal by focusing on sound (I chose the soft “s” as a whisper to the hard “z” associated with bees), wordplay (“trump,” “unjust desserts”), essential but vivid images (“golden lips and sticky fingers”), and the briefest of allusions ( only “enslaved” as I resisted how to pack the poem with both slavery and the Japanese Internment).

A good poem, I think, even if it demands to be a political poem, becomes good by all that the poet chooses to leave out as the poet strips the billowing ideas down to the least possible words.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel,” wrote James Baldwin in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”

Baldwin engages in this essays that tension between art and politics/activism, arguing, “It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.”

Choosing fidelity to art over politics and activism, Baldwin rejects the protest novel:

But unless one’s ideal of society is a race of neatly analyzed, hard-working ciphers, one can hardly claim for the protest novels the lofty purpose they claim for themselves or share the present optimism concerning them. They emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.

The missionary zeal of activism erases both the core values of the artist and the intent of that zeal—and then Baldwin reminds us:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.

Turning at the end to Richard Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin concludes:

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

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“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

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“In the latter half of the twentieth century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures,” explains Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale has been rejuvenated with the rise of Trump.

While strongly associated with George Orwell, see her essays on “Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections,” Atwood turns from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to another classic dystopian work:

The other was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism – one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality; of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration; of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work; and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.

Then adds, “Which template would win, we wondered?…Would it be possible for both of these futures – the hard and the soft – to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?”

Unlike the protest novel, could we find in dystopian science fiction a satisfying merging of art and politics/activism?

While Milan Kundera’s novels, notably The Unbearable Lightness of Being, seek to dramatize the philosophical and the political, Atwood’s dystopian works—from The Handmaid’s Tale to her MaddAddam Trilogy—are grounded in, as Atwood explains, history, not what she fabricates but what has already happened.

Atwood’s fiction is fiction in that she reconstructs human behavior while also infusing her dystopias with speculation, the logical extrapolations of actual human behavior.

“It was Huxley’s genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity,” Atwood understands: “Alone among the animals, we suffer from the future perfect tense.”

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The artist is a human driven to create, that urge welling up inside like a fresh batch of honey never aware of any intensions toward sweetness.

This, I think, we must not deny, for if we do, we deny ourselves.


See Also

Ahmed Naji: ‘Prison made me believe in literature more’

Day 2 Year 56: The Moment

I am at the annual South Carolina Council Teachers of English conference in Kiawah, SC.

This has become the “Glad You’re Alive Tour” since this conference is composed of dozens of my friends and colleagues, most of whom know about my recent car/bicycle accident but haven’t seen me in person since then.

Today is also day 2, year 56.

As I challenged myself in my most recent poem: “who writes about turning 56?”

I am not entirely sure what has spurred this burst of narcissism, this navel-gazing—aging or the accident, or some combination.

Both, I am sure, have flashed mortality before me more brilliantly than ever. The consequences of that are paradoxical, an urgency to notice every moment and a dull realization I am now confronted with way too much time far too often.

The persistent back-handed compliments of my adult life have revolved around how much I accomplish, the praise a thin veil for the nudges that something must be sacrificed to write and publish so much.

But few people ever saw the full experience of me who writes every day and then also cycles 10-15 hours a week, all year, for about 30 years.

The very perverse secret to my productivity has always been that I cram so much into every day that it forces me to be efficient and productive. My motor runs far too high, and I suffer for that with trouble sleeping and pervasive anxiety.

Day 2, year 56 also marks a little over a month with a fractured pelvis, a mostly stationary life that now has huge chunks of time that once was devoted to my bicycle.

I am not a stationary person. I am not one who enjoys free time.

This has been the sort of hell on earth that my existential leanings recognized was the human condition, but this experience has kicked my ass with a vengeance.

The greatest insult added to injury has been that my only refuge for exercise has been riding the recumbent stationary exercise bicycle in the past few days.

I detest exercise bicycles. I loathe exercising inside.

My life as a cyclist has had life-giving qualities I have recognized only in hindsight.

The constant motion of cycling and the hours cycling requires are irreplaceable balms for my OCD and ADHD.

And cycling outside, in the most glorious thing of this world, the sun, is my only real defense against depression. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, and nothing keeps me closer to the boundaries of happiness as sunshine does.

As awful as the exercise bicycle is, this has relieved the pain that has plagued me since being hit by the car, and I also have begun to sleep better (although I have never slept well).

Here at the conference, my return to exercise has been interrupted again, although only for a couple days, but I feel the same creeping anxiety that has defined my life for 30 years when I fear I cannot ride my bicycle as planned.

So I am here on my “Glad You’re Alive Tour,” and the thing that I know has changed in my life is I notice people looking at me as I never have before.

It began in the ER when family arrived.

Maybe it was the accident, or growing older, or a combination of both—but I see other people and myself now in ways that are more distinct.

Anxiety, you see, is being always prisoner to what may come next, to be alienated from the moment.

Day 2, year 56, and I am now being newly introduced to the moment.

The moment yesterday morning when I found on Facebook the video of my granddaughter posted by my daughter in which Skylar is telling me happy birthday, that she loves me.

After a horrifying nose bleed on the morning of my birthday, I sat on the couch and cried hard.

The moment.

I am not sure I know what to do with that, but I am more eager than ever to try.

The accident has lowered the bar, people are glad I am alive, and I am filled nearly to bursting that they are glad and that I too am glad to be here.

 

On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing

“The cause for my wrath is not new or single,” wrote Lou LaBrant in 1931, targeting how too often the project method engaged students in activities other than literacy.

This sharp critique by LaBrant has always resonated with me because even though I am now a teacher educator and have been a teacher for well over thirty years, I have always balked at pedagogy, instructional practices of any kind but especially those driven by technocratic zeal.

As one example, literature circles as an instructional structure represents the essential problems confronted by LaBrant about 86 years ago: the instructional practice itself requires time to teach students how to do the practice properly, and thus, “doing literature circles” becomes a goal unto itself and as a consequence subsumes and/or replaces the authentic literacy goals it claims to seek.

Further, many instructional practices border on being gimmicky because they are constructed in such a way to facilitate that anyone (regardless of expertise and experience) can implement them in the role of “teacher.”

For a while now, I have been contemplating the tension within teaching writing (composition) between those who teach writing as teachers and those who teach writing as writers.

I certainly default to the latter, and am drawn often to John Warner‘s public examinations of his teaching of writing (see below) because he also teaches writing as a writer.

Warner’s pieces about grading contracts and de-grading his first-year writing course have come when I am beginning my English/ELA methods seminar and wading into how my candidate must navigate ways to seek authentic practices in the context of the real world of teaching that often models for her teaching writing as a teacher, as a technocrat.

Here, then, I want to pull together a few concepts that I think are at their core related to LaBrant’s “wrath” and my rejecting of technocratic instruction—writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing.

Warner in blog posts and on Twitter questions his commitment to writing workshop, and offered that he has abandoned the term “workshop” for “laboratory.”

In one response, I mused that this all depends on what we mean by “writing workshop.”

Teaching about and practicing writing workshop for me have always been grounded in Nancie Atwell’s use of Giacobbe—that writing workshop incorporates time, ownership, and response.

Of course, writing workshop also typically involved peer and teacher-student conferencing as well as a number of other strategies such as read alouds and examining model texts.

So, although I do not wish to put words in Warner’s mouth, I believe he and I share a skepticism about writing workshop when “doing workshop” becomes so time consuming and complex that the pursuit of workshop replaces students actually doing the very messy and unpredictable task of writing, composing.

This is again the technocratic trap of instructional strategies of all kinds.

For the teaching of writing, something Kurt Vonnegut claimed could not be done, this trap is more common than not, particularly because teachers are often under-prepared as teachers of writing and teachers who are not writers (most ELA/English teachers, I would suspect) dominate who is charged with teaching writing.

Technocrats have ruined concepts such as the writing process, conferencing, and workshop by scripting and work-sheeting them into practices anyone can implement.

The teaching of writing requires teacher expertise and a high level of teaching as a craft—but fastidious attention to doing workshop or intricate peer-conferencing or mandating students demonstrate the writing process or essay templates ultimately fails fostering young writers.

Concurrent with the problems inherent in technocratic pedagogy is failing to consider the importance of cognitive overload when students are developing complex behaviors such as writing or reading.

Each of us has a limited amount of cognition we can devote to behaviors. When something becomes “second nature,” we then free cognition space. For me in the past year or so, returning to mountain biking has exposed this dynamic since road cycling had become “natural” to me, but mountain biking demanded so much purposeful thinking, I was constantly bumbling and frustrated.

Few truisms mean more to me as a teacher of writing than paying attention to (thus, avoiding) cognitive overload when your main instructional goal is fostering students as writers.

For example, if the topic or writing form is too demanding for students, they will often devote less or nearly no energy to writing itself. Many of us as teachers have read garbled essays by students, blaming the students instead of recognizing that we have asked them to do more than they were capable of doing concurrently.

For this reason, I stress the need to use personal narrative (because the content of the writing is an area of student expertise) as one foundational way to help students focus on craft and authentic writing forms.

K-12 students and first-year undergraduates, I think, need some careful consideration of cognitive overload as they acquire writing craft, and for first-year undergraduates, as they become more adept at the nuances of disciplinary writing in academia.

Avoiding technocratic pedagogy and cognitive overload, then, share the need for the teacher to keep primary the goals of learning; if we are fostering writers, we need to be sure time and effort are mostly spent on writing—not doing a pet instructional practice, not acquiring some disciplinary knowledge.

Finally, as I was discussing avoiding cognitive overload with my ELA/English methods student, I had her reconsider her plan to have students write short stories as the composition element in her short story unit this coming spring.

Just as I balk at technocratic pedagogy, I struggle with asking K-12 students to write fiction and poetry—primarily because these are very demanding forms of writing that encroach on my concern about cognitive overload; student must have both high levels of writing craft and the ability to fabricate narratives in order, for example, to write short stories.

As a high school English teacher, I found that students often reached for derivatives of derivative fiction in order to have something for characters and plot in their original short stories; for example, a student would write about an ER doctor as a main character (he or she always committed suicide at the end), drawing from almost entirely what the student knew about ERs from the TV show ER.

I made my case about cognitive overload, and then, she and I brainstormed what to have students write instead of their own short stories during her short story unit.

First, I asked her to reconsider her definition of “creative writing” being limited to fiction and poetry. I prefer LaBrant’s definition:

For in truth every new sentence is a creation, a very intricate and remarkable product. By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product. (p. 293)

This pulls us back to honoring the broad concepts of writing workshop above, focusing here on “creative” being linked to student choice (ownership) over what s/he writes about and what form that writing takes.

Next, we brainstormed the possibility of asking students to write personal narratives while also emphasizing that their original personal narratives would have in common with the short stories they are studying—craft elements.

Students could focus on organizational techniques in narratives, for example, while reading fiction, and then, incorporate that craft in their own personal narratives.

I have examined here ways to rethink writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing so that we forefront our writing goals when teaching writing and guard against technocratic and reductive instructional strategies that can mask our own expertise and experience as writers.

From LaBrant to Warner, we can unpack that teachers of writing are often working from places of fear—fear about losing control, fear of not being adequately prepared to teach writing, fear students will not write if given choice and freedom.

However, “I have heard many teachers argue that, given a free hand, pupils will write very little,” LaBrant explained. “I can only say that has not been my observation nor my teaching experience…” (p. 299).

And then Warner: “With the de-graded contract, students are writing more, and more importantly feel free to take risks in their writing.”

Our antidote to these fears is trust, and then the willingness to honor for ourselves and our students the value in risk.

Teaching writing like writing itself is fraught with fits and starts as well as failure. Trying to control those realities results in either masking them or destroying the greater goal of fostering writers.


For Further Reading

Grading Contract Journey Part I: First-Year Writing | Just Visiting, John Warner

Grading Contract Journey Part II: Fiction Writing | Just Visiting, John Warner

Thinking Context: No More Writing, John Warner

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

You Don’t Know Nothing: U.S. Has Always Shunned the Expert

Why did you listen to that man, that man’s a balloon

“Friend of Mine,” The National

My redneck past includes a childhood steeped, like the family formula for making sweet tea, in a demand that children respect authority—authority-for-authority’s sake, the status of authority despite the credibility of the person in that status.

And is typical in the South, these lessons were punctuated with refrains such as the one my mother launched at us often: “He’s a know-it-all that don’t know nothing.”

But the best laid plans of parents often go awry, and they certainly did for me because this aspect of my redneck past backfired big time, resulting in a life-long skepticism of authority as well as my own pursuit of expertise trumping status.

Among my most irritating qualities, I suspect, is I work very hard not to hold forth until I am well informed, but when I do hold forth, I am passionate and that passion often comes off as arrogance.

I have little patience with debating when the other side lacks credibility, and I also balk at the silliest of all—”We will agree to disagree, then.”

Well, no, since your position has no credibility.

So I am particularly fascinated with what I consider a parallel interest currently with fake news and post-truth, what Tom Nichols calls The Death of Expertise.

Nichols and his argument, coming from his conservative perspective, represent, I think, why expertise currently and historically has been marginalized in the U.S.

Pop culture, in fact, has documented well how the so-called average American finds expertise and being educated mockable—think Fonzie on Happy Days and Ross on Friends.

Uneducated Fonzie is always smarter than the educated, and Ross is a laughing stock among his friends, notably often one-upped by the very anti-intellectual Phoebe and Joey (I discuss the latter more fully in Belief Culture).

Nichols and I share a concern about how little expertise matters in political and public discourse as well as policy, but while he and I share some elements of being experts, we are divided by our essential ideologies.

This presents a paradox: The U.S. rejects a cartoonish and monolithic “expert class,” but most fields/disciplines have a fairly wide spectrum of stances within them (in other words, the “expert class” rejected by the U.S. simply doesn’t exist).

But even that is oversimplified. Let me return to my redneck past.

In the South specifically, rejecting expertise is often about traditional views of respecting authority, best captured, I think, in how Huck Finn’s father shames Huck for his book learning. Huck even confesses: “I didn’t want to go to school much, before, but I reckoned I’d go now to spite papa.”

One of my former colleagues recounted often that his own father identified sending my friend to college was the worst mistake his father ever made.

Perversely, many see being informed, knowledgeable as rudeness, disrespectful.

A better recent confrontation of expertise than Nichols’s, I think, is Freddie deBoer’s What Is Aleppo?, focusing on Gary Johnson:

I would like to nominate Gary Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe as the moment which, for me, most typifies 2016, at least as far as our intellectual culture goes.

Predictably, and deservedly, Johnson was raked over the coals for this. A major presidential candidate — one who had far more electoral impact than Jill Stein, for instance — not knowing about this important foreign policy issue was disturbing. But it’s essential to recognize what he actually got in trouble for. Johnson’s great failure, what actually fed his public humiliation, was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of knowingness. 

deBoer argues: “Ours is a culture of cleverness, not of knowledge, one that is far more comfortable in assessing wit than in assessing evidence.”

And here we may have a more accurate window into why someone who is not really an expert, such as Donald Trump, but is smug and cavalier about being smart, is more compelling in the U.S. than actual experts. Trump passes deBoer’s test:

That kind of thing: obviously smart but not, like, all tryhard about it. You are expected to work out relentlessly to train your body and to show everyone that effort, but your intelligence must be effortless, even accidental.

As I have argued, this is a very high-school popularity kind of dynamic in which bravado trumps credibility; again, think Fonzie’s allure in pop culture: “See, the drop-out is smarter than all those teachers!”

My own career as an educator has highlighted these exact patterns.

As a teacher of English, I am not credible in the field of English because I am just a teacher with an undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctorate in education (not English). However, to politicians and the public, I am routinely rejected in debates about education because my experience and expertise lie in education.

As a prelude to the rise of Trump, consider Arne Duncan, who has no degree in education and who has only experience in eduction as a political appointee.

Who do you think has more public and political influence on education—Duncan because of his statuses of authority or me with 33 years in education, an advanced degree, and a substantial publication history?

That question is nearly laughable in the U.S.

Let me end with a couple examples that are useful for a more nuanced consideration of the role of experts, grounded, I think, in deBoer’s discussion.

First, consider Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? and Doug Hesse’s We Know What Works in Teaching Composition, both published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I immediately blogged a rebuttal to Teller, and discovered through responses to my concerns that Teller has greater expertise in literature than composition (which I suspected).

Hesse’s rebuttal is grounded in his expertise in composition, his status of authority (president of NCTE), and his appeal to disciplinary authority (citing ample research that accurately reflects the field of composition).

None the less, Teller’s piece speaks to both an uniformed public and a click-bait culture, and it is likely, as John Warner mused, that Hesse’s better piece will not garner as many views or as much commentary as Teller’s.

This debate between experts serves to highlight, again, the failure of media in terms of honoring expertise, but it also demonstrates that expertise is often narrow and that disciplines are more often contentious than monolithic (although there are some things that are essentially settled and no longer debatable).

Bluntly, we must admit that simplistic resonates more than complex—and expertise is not only narrow but also complex.

Finally, to highlight that expertise is as much about wrestling with knowledge as having knowledge, I offer a debate in a guest co-edited volume of English Journal, centered on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

At one level, the experts included in this debate, in my informed opinion, are far more likely to have credible positions about the topic than people without degrees and experience in literature, the canon, race/racism, and teaching.

Yet, among these articles, you will find pointed disagreement—and as someone with expertise in these areas, I find myself siding with some, rejecting others, even as I respect the basic expertise among them all.

So in 2016, we are faced with a historical and immediate problem, one that could be solved if we reconsidered our cultural antagonism toward expertise and embraced a greater appreciation for informed stances, the realm of the expert.

As a critical pedagogue, I appease my skepticism about authority and quest for expertise by honoring being authoritative over authoritarian (see Paulo Freire).

It is ours to resist extremes, neither ignoring experts nor abdicating all authority to experts.

As cumbersome as it may seem, democracy that honors all voices works well only when we start with the most informed voices and then allow “all voices” to occur in an educated space.

Currently, we are prisoners to bravado drowning out expertise, and in that echo chamber, freedom cannot survive.

Thanksgiving: “be brave/ And be kind”

A couple nights ago, my son-in-law and I were downstairs along with my granddaughter, his daughter.

He had set the oven to heat and then sat on the couch. As my granddaughter is prone to do, she took her father by the finger and urged him onto the floor with her.

Soon, he was cross-legged with her in his lap.

I heard the oven beep that the temperature was ready so I told him, prompting him to say that his daughter didn’t sit with him as she was that often so he wasn’t in a hurry to move.

I smiled and said he shouldn’t move because before long she would hate him—thinking about the inevitable teen years of rebellion and parent/child tensions.

He said he wasn’t looking forward to that, shaking his head. I added that she’ll grow out of that also.

As I watched my son-in-law and granddaughter there in the floor, I heard the universe whisper as it always does if we are willing to listen:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

Today is my second day alone caring for both of my grandchildren; the first day a week ago included my granddaughter’s first major vomiting experience, and my grandson, only a couple months old, obliged with also spitting up on me later in the day—a two-fer.

Yesterday was the last class session for my three courses (two first-year writing and one foundations in education) before Thanksgiving break.

My classes are intellectually challenging—the writing course focusing on James Baldwin and #BlackLivesMatter and my education course never straying far from the impact of poverty and race on teaching and learning.

In the wakes of the presidential election in 2016 and then attending the National Council of Teachers of English’s annual conference in Atlanta, GA (#NCTE2016), I think my class sessions and my own view of everything have been even more intensified than usual.

As I looked into the eyes and faces of my students, I also heard the universe whisper:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

Just before my trip to #NCTE2016, a student who had driven from Greenville, SC, to Atlanta, GA, the weekend after the election to protest asked my experience with protesting myself.

Another student had asked for my perspective on the protests more broadly the classes before as well.

My answer to both included my support for the protests, but that my own approach to advocacy and activism was grounded in my professional self; I view teaching and being a writer as activism, as advocacy.

In fact, I cannot fathom how to separate my private and professional selves just as I cannot fathom how to teach or to write without being political.

“I am a writer,” I explained. “It’s the only way I know how to respond to this world.”

Speaking to the student who needed someone to understand her urge to protest, I also heard the universe whisper:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

And then at #NCTE2016, where Ta-Nehisi Coates was a featured speaker, Coates answered in a similar way about his writing and his concept of protests and advocacy.

Also at the conference, I told a friend as we walked through the exhibition hall that being a writer and sitting with a line of people eager to meet you, to have you sign your book—that must be the ultimate way to feel like a writer.

The immediate feedback of teaching—a necessarily social act—is a beautiful thing against the isolation and distance of being a writer.

But writers need that feedback as well, need to know there is an audience.

As I sat listening to Coates being interviewed, as I walked through the convention center at #NCTE2016, I also heard the universe whisper:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

I’ve never been one for holidays, the stress and break in the rhythms of life are hard on those of us who suffer from anxiety. Fall and winter holidays are even more stressful for me with the dwindling daylight and the creeping cold temperatures.

But there is certainly something about Thanksgiving—taking the space and time to give thanks—that can rise above the problems with the literal source of the holiday and the inherent problems with holiday celebrations.

Do we as teachers and writers especially need that space and time to acknowledge and appreciate all for which we should be thankful?

I think so—now more than ever.

As a teacher, I am thankful for and I love my students.

As a writer, I am thankful for and I am humbled by my readers.

With my granddaughter playing nearby and watching Doc McStuffins, with my grandson sleeping on my bed, I squeeze in time to write, and I pause to listen to the universe whisper:

This is why we are here. This is why we are here. This is why we are here …

To “be brave/ And to be kind.”

Lost in Translation: More from a Stranger in Academia

Decade four and round two in academia—this time at the university level where, one might assume, things would be easier.

First, a flashback.

I am the English department chair, and the entire faculty is sitting in the high school library for a faculty meeting about standardized test scores for our school. Having entered education in the fall of 1984—the first year of South Carolina’s all-in commitment to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing—I have taught for over thirty years under the weight of test scores.

Before the principal and the math department chair shared our students’ scores on the test-of-the-moment, the principal offered what he believed was a friendly caveat about the English scores: ” Just want you all to remember that we don’t teach grammar here,” with a nod and a smile in my direction.

Now fast-forward to my current situation where I teach two first-year writing seminars, had a now defunct role as faculty Director of FYS, and continue to co-facilitate our efforts at offering faculty develop in teaching writing.

In our Faculty Writing Fellows sessions, I am routinely addressed whenever someone mentions grammar, notably commas, with a similar caveat—although these don’t seem quite as friendly as they are marginalizing.

To be committed to critical pedagogy, critical constructivism, de-grading/de-testing, and authentic writing instruction is to be a stranger in academia.

You are tolerated with bemusement, as the mostly harmless weirdo in the room.

You aren’t credible—although you have worked for over thirty years honing your craft, taking great care as a teacher and writer to teach only warranted practices and to honor above all else the human dignity and autonomy of your students.

Nope, you “don’t teach grammar”—which is both false and used in the sort of condescending way people in the U.S. say “liberal” or people in the South say “Bless your heart.”

My urge to be abrasive always prompts me to say: “Actually I teach grammar the right way.” But I don’t say anything.

Mostly I stew—the same way I stew about writing free verse poetry under the judgmental purview of those who think free verse is a lazy person’s game.

And, I keep at it—doing warranted practice diligently despite the suggestions otherwise.

I teach relentlessly that language, its use and the forces that seek to control its use (including those who shout “grammar rules!”), is about power—as James Baldwin confronts in his brilliant defense of Black English:

It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden. This is true in France, and is absolutely true in England: The range (and reign) of accents on that damp little island make England coherent for the English and totally incomprehensible for everyone else. To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to “put your business in the street”: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.

I don’t teach students grammar, mechanics, and usage rules; I guide my students as we interrogate the conventions of language—why they exist, how they have changed, and why each student’s own empowerment depends on their being aware and in control of those conventions and their language.

And beyond my ethical reasons for approaching language this way, ethical reasons grounded in critical pedagogy, I am motivated by a negative: I don’t want to fall into a trap confronted by Lou LaBrant:

On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness. (pp. 276)

The prescriptive-grammarian-as-teacher, I fear, is harping on pet peeves, setting themselves up for sullying the language and their students’ passion for expression—but certainly opening themselves up for losing their own credibility because virtually all users of language are pickers and choosers about strict adherence to the so-called
“rules.”

My stress level is triggered each time I receive emails from a prescriptive grammarian who spells my sacred Southernism “ya’ll.”

I am a writer and I teach writing—both of which are at the core of who I am as a person.

Ultimately, then, I side with LaBrant: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing” (p. 123).

But, alas, it is this sort of principled approach to teaching, and teaching writing, that pushes me farther and farther afield of academia.

And so a stranger in academia, I eye the fire escape, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie anxious with the awareness that “the other boys in the warehouse regarded [him] with suspicious hostility.”

Is Joseph R. Teller Teaching Composition All Wrong?

While provocative in ways I suspect he never intended, Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? proves to be an essay that should, ironically, be significantly revised after conferencing with someone well versed in teaching composition.

Broadly, Teller’s essay makes a common first-year composition mistake by significantly misrepresenting “teaching composition” and then proceeding to attack the misrepresentations. However, late in the piece, Teller wanders into some important conclusions that actually are warranted composition practices—despite his suggesting these are somehow alternatives to endorsed practice.

Teller opens by claiming that “compositionists have been enamored of a pedagogical orthodoxy” he briefly details in three bullet points.

In my first-year seminar, here would be the first area for conferencing and revision: how does the writer justify the condescending “enamored” (it appears Teller has a literaturist’s low opinion of the compositionist lurking underneath the real reason for this essay; maybe a bit of professional distress over having to teach first-year composition instead of upper-level literature?); and where is any evidence that the claim and three points are credible?

After failing to include evidence for his central claim, however, Teller declares composition “pedagogical orthodoxy” a failure—a pretty hasty and damning conclusion.

To detail those failures, Teller launches into revision and a jumbled criticism of “workshop,” highlighting a central failure of this essay and a grounding lesson that must be addressed in first-year composition classes: defining terms (a bedrock of disciplinary writing).

Before examining Teller’s concerns about students not revising, I must highlight that Teller appears to conflate “workshop” with “peer editing/conferencing” since the only aspect of workshop he addresses is peer conferencing.

It is without a doubt that a critical unpacking of the effectiveness of peer editing/conferencing is warranted; many writing teachers struggle with that. But writing workshop is significantly more than peer conferencing.

Over a semester of 40+ class sessions, I devote 4 class periods in part to peer conferencing with about triple that amount of class time devoted to other aspects of workshop: brainstorming, discussion, reading, drafting, exploring evidence, etc.

Now, about revision: my students revise essays significantly or they do not receive credit for the essay, and thus, cannot receive credit for the course. Revision strategies and minimum expectations for revising are addressed and detailed in conferences, and then, my students do revise, and typically are eager to do so.

Effective for me has been not to grade essays, but to have minimum elements for credit in the course that include drafting essays, conferencing, and revising/rewriting essays.

I don’t want to make the mistake also suffered by Teller—assuming anecdotes prove credible generalizations—but I am reasonably sure many composition professors have students revise, and revise well—and those strategies are in fact aspects of warranted writing pedagogy.

Next, Teller complains: “Even when students engage complex issues from readings in their papers, they do not use the basic argumentative structures they need in order to give their ideas voice, cohesion, and support.”

Here is a key moment when Teller’s essay is doubly problematic since he identifies good practice as if it isn’t already good practice.

The suggestion that composition as a field somehow now rejects direct teaching of “argumentative structures” or “voice, cohesion, and support” is misleading, and frankly, baffling.

Teller appears to link, next, this lack of instruction he manufactures with demands for composition teachers “that ‘critical reading’ should be as integral to a writing course as the teaching of argumentation, structure, paragraphs, and sentences.”

Again, Teller is drifting toward a powerful concern among composition teacher: how to balance disciplinary content (the stuff we write about) with composition content (the stuff Teller has falsely suggested composition is “enamored” with ignoring).

Too much and too complex disciplinary content can and often does overwhelm first-year students, leaving them unable or unwilling to focus on developing as writers, but composition course cannot and must not be free of disciplinary content.

The compromise embraced within the field of composition is shifting away from the sort of “close reading” that is common and essential in disciplinary courses and toward reading like a writer—unpacking the readings in a course for the what and how of the text to highlight the role of rhetorical strategies, modes, and writer’s craft in making and sharing meaning.

Although significantly misleading and jumbled, Teller builds to a final set of bullet points, again presented as if they are counter to warranted writing pedagogy but are in fact mostly well within warranted writing pedagogy.

Responding to student essays early, often, and intentionally? Well, of course.

Also, “frequent essays, frequent feedback”? Again, absolutely.

His third point confronts and challenges a somewhat idealized view of peer conferencing, and I agree peer conferencing has limitations—thus, Teller’s caveats seem solid, and worth greater examination.

Next, “process serves product” proves hard to dispute, but his assertion about a hypothetical “bright” student potentially producing writing that doesn’t need revision is a bit odd since he seems to use this point to reinforce a larger challenge to focusing on process and drafting in first-year composition. Professional writers and scholars nearly universally revise, and almost always benefit from feedback, time for the piece to breath, and revision.

In a composition course, then, novice writers should revise—because “an excellent essay in one draft,” well, that Bigfoot doesn’t exist. And I base this on 30+ years of teaching writing that has included a number of bright students who all benefitted from drafting even their best work.*

Teller’s fifth bullet—”Sometimes it’s better to ditch an essay and move forward”—may be the best example of the jumbled nature of his argument because abandonment is an essential aspect of essay drafting. In other words, to embrace abandoning a draft is not an argument against requiring drafts by students, as Teller suggests.

When I conduct the required conference after the first submission of each essay, the first question we address is whether or not the student wishes to continue with the current essay; starting over, significantly recasting, or modestly revising or editing the current essay is the foundational set of questions of the drafting process.

At Teller’s final bullet, I want to emphasize how effective workshop and conference can be because if this were a first-year student’s essay, I would note that his final point is the heart of a much better new essay confronting the proper place of disciplinary content and extensive reading requirements in a composition course.

This concern by Teller remains a vibrant and difficult debate in the field of composition and among professors, worthy then of an essay.

As is often the case when responding to student essays, in fact, I find the kernel of an essay late in what the student believes is a final essay—again demonstrating the value of time, ownership, and response (the central elements of workshop Teller fails to identify or explain).

While there is much potential in Teller’s final bullets, the last two paragraphs return to misrepresentation and more than a hint at the potential motivation for his essay.

Composition as a field is not “enamored” with pedagogy, and certainly does not “fetishize” the writing process. These are belittling swipes at a cartoon version of writing best practice.

And thus, the last two paragraphs remind me too much of what is often wrong with first-year essays—turning personal angst into careless and lazy grand pronouncements.

Teller’s argument needs to be better informed, more tightly focused, and much more fully supported—likely recast as an interrogation of only one of his points (the reading and disciplinary content issue).

And as fate would hate it, these could all be addressed in a proper writing workshop and a few careful passes at guided revision.


* I have revised the two paragraphs here in light of concerns raised in the comments; I do agree the original rushed my point, but I also think my point remains valid, and better expressed now. The comments also include important points that I believe lend even greater credibility to my concerns about a literature professor misrepresenting composition as a field.

Getting Better at Teaching Students Writing: Work With What They Know, John Warner