A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Dostoevsky’s passion and conviction as something we do not permit ourselves

The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we–here, today–cannot or do not permit ourselves. Joseph Frank does an admirable job of tracing out the interplay of factors that made this engagement possible–FMD’s own beliefs and talents, the ideological and aesthetic climates of his day, etc. Upon his finishing Frank’s books, though, I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.

– David Foster Wallace, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” published 22 years ago. Does it still hold true? I’m not well-read enough to say, but work like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad doesn’t strike me as falling into this description.




Crime and Punishment, for ‘this moment’

Shortly after pulling Crime and Punishment off my shelf John Wilson recommended the book to someone else on Twitter, stating, “I’d vote for Crime & Punishment at this moment.” While I’d also thought about “this moment” a bit in choosing it, I’d mostly been looking for an excuse to revisit a book I’d loved twenty years ago. In my reading, though, I realized how right Wilson was. Here is one of  Raskolnikov’s attempts to explain why he killed:

I kept asking myself then: am I so stupid that, if others are stupid and I know for certain they’re stupid, I myself don’t want to be smarter? Then I learned, Sonya, that if one waits for everyone to become smarter, it will take too long . . . And then I also learned that it will never happen, that people will never change, and no one can remake them, and it’s not worth the effort! Yes, it’s true! It’s their law . . . A law, Sonya! It’s true! . . . And I know now, Sonya, that he who is firm and strong in mind and spirit will rule over them! He who dares much will be right in their eyes. He who can spit on what is greatest will be their lawgiver, and he who dares the most will be the rightest of all! Thus it has been until now, and thus it will always be. Only a blind man can fail to see it!

Then I realized, Sonya, that power is given only to the one who dares to reach down and take it. Here there is one thing, one thing only: one has only to dare! And then a thought took shape in me, for the first time in my life, one that nobody had ever thought before me! Nobody! It suddenly came to me as bright as the sun: how is it that no man before now has dared or dares yet, while passing by all this absurdity, quite simply to take the whole thing by the tail and whisk it off to the devil! I . . . I wanted to dare, and I killed . . . I just wanted to dare, Sonya, that’s the whole reason!

Using Serial (season 1) to teach journalism

I am not a great journalism teacher. I’ve been teaching the class for four years (it’s a semester long writing class for seniors) and have altered my approach drastically in many ways, experimenting with our working time, with what I ask of students and how I motivate them, with the direction of my lessons. This year I wanted to improve their grasp of investigative journalism, to help them see what it is, both how hard it is and what is really going on with it. In truth, I have struggled to spark students’ interest in journalism, in its relevance, and since I see investigative reporting as the most exciting part of journalism (real change brought about from diligent reporting, the whole watchdog for a Democratic Society ideal) I thought emphasizing this area might be the best way to spark interest and build the relevance of the whole enterprise.

So this year we listened to season one of Serial, the wildly popular 2014 podcast. We listened in class, which we can do because our school uses a block schedule (95 minute classes), and I asked students to answer particular questions about each episode. After listening we continued working on our regular news stories for the school paper.

I thought our listening to it might show us a good example of investigative journalism but also lend us a view inside the process, what goes into putting all this together, because Sarah Koenig is so conversational and open about what she is trying to do and how she does it.

We finished the last episode today, and I am on the fence about its worth.

That was a lot of class time. Early on it felt completely worth it, but somewhere around episode nine I began to wonder whether I’d do this again. The episodes vary in length but generally run 40 to 50 minutes. With 12 episodes, that’s a lot of class time to give to this project (at least nine hours).

But then again, I have taught this class for years and know that what I had been doing with that time was not working. I was continually disappointed with the results of my instruction. The content was good, but somehow it never hooked my seniors, whose minds were set more on completing their high school careers than the nuances of clutter in their prose. No matter how good the lessons’ content was, if the students didn’t learn them, they weren’t good. So did Serial lead to greater net learning?

I am happy with students’ responses to my questions about each episode. They were thoughtful and insightful. They were clearly listening (no napping, no playing on their phones). They were developing their own opinions. They were understanding what Koenig was doing as a storyteller when I asked them to consider her methods. And they were ready to riot when one person affirmed Adnan should have been convicted (they voted 17-1 to acquit him, not believing he was innocent so much as not sure he was guilty).

All the students said they thought it was worth the time we spent on it. One qualified her comments a tad, recognizing that we spent twelve class periods on it and I might not want to do that again, but she still voted for it. Another student told me, “It helped with how I view journalism,” which is encouraging, though it’s possible I primed her for that kind of feedback, as I had asked them what they learned about journalism and whether I should do it again.

Likely the key measure of the experience will be how students respond in their own work, their own journalism. Their big project for the quarter is to write their own investigative piece. The results from past classes have been mixed (many students have passed off basic news reports as investigative pieces), so if this group writes a series of truly investigative reports, I would be encouraged. But I also have to admit that such results can depend as much on the topics students discover as on their understanding of the skills. If I can suggest a number of great ideas, students will seize them and frequently write good stories, but if I can’t think of enough topics, a dearth of interesting stories may result.

I have done worse things than this Serial unit–though nothing as long–so I’m not scared to try it again. While students enjoyed it, I’m not particularly confident in its place and am definitely fishing for other ideas. If I come across one, I will be content to toss Serial back into the pond.

Enjoying the person who tells you that what you do is wrong

Bryan Garner writes in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, “Footnotes are generally an excellent place for citations. But textual footnotes–those that contain substantive discussion–ought to be kept to a minimum.” I find this comment particularly wonderful, as I am leafing through Garner’s book on David Foster Wallace’s recommendation.  In “Authority and American Usage” (a 57 page review), Wallace’s objections to elements of ADMAU run one paragraph and can be summarized in one sentence: “Except for the VOGUE WORDS snafu and the absence of a pronunciation entry on trough, the above were pretty much the only quibbles this reviewer could find.”¹

So Wallace, the world’s greatest virtuoso of footnotes with “substantive discussion,” did not quibble with Garner’s estimate about their use. This is likely because Wallace was not claiming to agree with everything Garner says but that it was all done well. Near the end of Wallace’s essay (in a footnote), he admits he disagrees with Garner’s use of a particular comma before a conjunction (there was no independent clause in tow!) and asserts, “But respectful disagreement between people of goodwill is of course Democratically natural and healthy and, when you come right down to it, kind of fun.” I imagine Wallace found Garner’s comments about footnotes interesting and astute even if he was totally unwilling to apply them to himself.

This morning strikes me as a good time to approach such disagreements with the same kind of spirit.


  1. That pronunciation entry complaint isn’t even a complaint. It’s a joke with the punchline in the footnote.

DFW on college writers’ most common error: self-absorption

As rhetoric, this sort of attitude works only in sermons to the choir, and as pedagogy it’s disastrous, and in terms of teaching writing it’s especially bad because it commits precisely the error that most Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making–the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn. This kind of mistake results more from a habit of mind than from any particular false premise–it is a function not of fallacy or ignorance but of self-absorption. It also happens to be the most persistent and damaging error that most college writers make, and one so deeply rooted that it often takes several essays and conferences and revisions to get them to even see what the problem is. Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind–anything that you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue–your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for.

Because (1) and (2) seem so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (“This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree”) and something that the writer merely opines (“My reasons for recommending this are as follows:”). These sorts of requirements are, of course, also the elements of a Democratic Spirit. I therefore submit that the hoary cliche “Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think” sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it. (106, FN 59)

Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Little, Brown, 2006.

Missing the Point of the Flux Capacitor

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

In 1982, 406 of 415 voters selected Hank Aaron to be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That made Aaron a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but as the career home run leader at the time (he hit 755 home runs), one wonders how or why nine voters did not select him. Truly, you can’t please everyone.  Which is exactly what I thought when reading Sheila Benson’s 1985 review of Back to the Future for the Los Angeles Times (‘An Underpowered Trip Back to the Future’). The film’s score at Rotten Tomatoes is just under Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame voting percentage (96% compared to 97.8%), but Benson thinks it is “big, cartoonish and empty,” showing she missed the point entirely.

For Benson, the film’s premise is good but the execution lacks nuance. She chastises Michael J. Fox’s performance as “dangerously low on subtlety,” thinks Marty McFly’s mother having the hots for Marty has “a faintly rancid taste,” and complains that “an all-black band could never have played a small-town high school dance in 1955.”  Most importantly, Benson believes that when it comes to the plot and Marty McFly’s attempts to return to 1985, “there is, unfortunately, never a second’s doubt that he’ll manage any of these feats.” Essentially, then, Benson is upset over what she deems the unreality of the fun.

By focusing on the reality of the film, though, Ms. Benson completely misses its goals, holding it to standards it never sets for itself. In watching Back to the Future dozens of times (no hyperbole used), I have never once wondered whether Marty McFly would accomplish any of his tasks. Instead, I have always delighted in how he accomplishes them. I have never stopped to wonder whether it is possible to drive a car at 88 mph and hit a wire at the precise moment a bolt of lightning charges it, or whether a man can dangle off a clock face and catch a heavy cable by his wool trousers, or how a 50 year old man can still be 50 years old 30 years later. Instead, I have gloried in watching Doc Brown prevent Marty from being erased from existence. Similarly, I have never been foolish enough to view the film’s 1955 setting as historical artifact. McFly journeys not to the real 1955 America but to an idealized stereotype of it—where every building houses a successful business, where kids play in the town square, and where black Americans are on the verge of breaking free from their historic mistreatment. It’s intentional nonsense, which is why its not being the real 1955 never bothers 96% of viewers, and why Marty McFly’s not being subtle is not the point (Did she notice Doc Brown? The director was clearly not chasing subtlety). The point is that Marty is witty and spunky and fun. And that Doc is brilliant and loyal and significantly off-kilter. And that they’re both easy to root for. Amidst all that, we don’t imagine Marty will be stuck forever, we just wonder how he’ll work his way out.

In this 1985 review, Shelia Benson admits that for her the film contained early promise, and she hoped it might be “another ‘Buckaroo Bonzai.’” This, unfortunately for Benson, reveals precisely how off her calculations were. Though I grew up in the 1980s, I had to google Buckaroo Bonzai to know what it was (a sci-fi film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, released in 1984). But Back to the Future? Oh, I think we all know what that is, just like all baseball fans know who Hank Aaron is: one of the all-time greats.

Trump’s Tyranny of the Mind

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

It is easy to find anti-Trump messages these days, particularly if one is roaming through late night TV comedy. But such left-leaning comedians’ objections to Trump are not surprising—how many of them would admit to supporting anything President George W. Bush did, for example? More surprising—and, to my mind, more significant—is the continued vehement objection to President Donald Trump from more conservative sources, like Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush. In a recent column for the Washington Post (“How Trump Broke Conservatism”), Gerson characterizes President Trump’s manner of arguing as an assault on truth. According to Gerson, Trump’s strategy is to “First, assert and maintain a favorable lie. Second, attack and discredit sources of opposition. Third, declare victory based on power or applause.” In other words, Gerson is saying, Trump chooses not to persuade based on argumentation or truth but on assertion and power. Gerson fills a paragraph with classic examples, including President Trump’s claim during the presidential campaign that President Barak Obama had wiretapped his campaign headquarters and his claim that President Obama is Kenyan.

Gerson’s theory about Trump’s argumentation is extremely useful because it illustrates how the President is not engaging in debates and logic as they are traditionally thought of, but instead using the logic of power. It is a logic we’re familiar with but also one which most people know to be problematic and morally suspect. It reminds me of an old ESPN advertisement for NBA games, where the ESPN announcers are traveling the country in an RV with NBA players. In one clip, two announcers are taking on Shaquille O’Neil at Scrabble. Shaq finishes a move and earns 29 points for “Shaqtastic.” The camera shows us the board, which is full of words built out of Shaq’s name (“Shaqattack,” “Shaqesque”). “How did you get so many Q’s?” Stuart Scott asks, to which Shaq replies with the brusque authority of a 300 pound, seven foot man: “Don’t worry about it.” There is a pause, and then he smiles to say, “My turn again!”

The audience laughs because Shaq’s power, which they had watched him use to move other 7 foot men around a basketball court like they were kindergartners, was completely inappropriate at the Scrabble board. Yet if the situation were real, what could two puny TV announcers have done to prevent it? After all, Gerson reminds us, “The alternative to reasoned discourse is the will to power,” and Shaq’s on-camera (and on-court) persona embodies the will to power.

Gerson’s commentary is light on ideas for how to prevent this “tyranny of the mind,” but his words are themselves a beginning. In the make believe world of that ESPN RV, to call Shaq a bully and a cheat would have brought consequences in the RV—possibly painful ones–but it also would have ended the parody of a Scrabble game. Michael Gerson’s columns have surely lost him prestige in the current Republican party, but he’s decided the consequences are worth exposing the parody.