"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Still Learning to Teach from the Air We Breathe

August 23rd, 2016 by

The shift from summer to fall always seems to be a subjective one. Especially because I live in Southern California, the change has less to do with the weather now than it did when I was young, and more to do with the six hour meetings I am asked to attend this week for the start of the new school year. That is the season changer for me. I am turning to face a new year of expectation and promise by attending meetings. In another week, I will be face-to-face with over fifty young people, many of whom I have never met. I have been off on my own for three months, somewhat airily planning classes with them in my thoughts, at least theoretically, and I will be working with them in a kind of hermetically sealed reality for the next four months. When I look up in December, I will in many ways be a very different person from the one I am today. I know certain bargains will be struck. (I keep that in the passive voice to avoid admitting any wrong doing.)

The “theoretical” part mentioned above is this: I’ve been thinking about this new school year and reading up on new ideas for my classes. I’ve been thinking about the past and what has and hasn’t worked. As I have planned for this school year, I have found it increasingly helpful to think about the environment that most influences my students as human beings simply because they live in it. I do this because I teach writing, in some ways a most personal subject to teach, but also one that makes constant references to the world around us.

As always, many of the writing assignments that most college students will be faced with this fall will seem artificial to them. They will be asked to do what they never do in their “environment.” Provide evidence? Provide citations of articles they’ve read? Who does that? Even the politicians some of my students have been listening to all summer haven’t been doing this. Charges of plagiarism have floated over at least one of the parties involved, but harmlessly. Aside from a fired aide, no public figures have been harmed in any real way.

It is not that the students I meet haven’t taken writing classes before. It is rather that the writing they’ve done may resemble work in a course in music appreciation. It’s good to learn new genres and even history, but at the end of the day, they will return to their itunes as their music of choice.

With this in mind, I have been reflecting on a passage from a Composition scholar I have long admired, Ann E. Berthoff. In a wonderful essay with the title, “Is Teaching Still Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning,” she notes the following:

“Persuasion is in the air we breathe; it is the mode of advertisement. But where do our students hear argument? Mine do not have the faintest idea of the conventions of an editorial–and when have they ever heard an authentic, dialectical exchange on television information shows? The discourse we find familiar to the point of being able to reproduce it has nothing to do with developmental stages, once childhood is passed….You may be sure that prepubescent Presbyterians in the eighteenth century were capable of composing arguments on natural depravity…Argument was the air you breathed, a hundred years ago…(T)he capacity to manage disputation is a culture-bound skill” (341).

Thinking about writing as a “culture-bound skill” is an interesting way to say it. I have been reflecting on this passage at some length as I get ready for the promise of the new year. In many ways, what I have seen in students in the past, I will see again. They will bring with them to class the models they are most in tune with. Advertising is the air they and I breathe. I will be introducing my students to a different air, of course, asking them to pretend, maybe even fake it a little, as we get started. I will continue to think of the ways that they and I frame the issues we face. We will read new thoughts.

In many ways, what we will do will be vital to them, to me, even to our civic space. I hope to be like the camel sticking its nose under the tent, bringing something new. But I will not think less of anyone for not taking naturally to that which has become strange and alien to the culture we share.

That always seems to be part of the bargain I have to bring.

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