A Teacher's Writes

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

Category: On Classes and Curriculum

Memoir as a Unique Expression in the Literary Canon

I would claim that, as a genre, personal memoirs and autobiographies provide something crucial to the literary canon and historical records. They are unique expressions, distinct in significant ways from novels and poetry; they are highly crafted true stories where the writer is free to tell whatever outlandish tale really happened. In them the writer’s ultimate purpose is to say, “This happened” and “This is what I believe it means.” And with them a unique trust exists between the writer and reader, with the reader willingly ceding incredulity toward the chronicled events, accepting them as true in an historical sense.

I’m working on something for my students and wrote this paragraph as an initial volley to which they could then respond–agree, disagree, or both. Is this what I should say about memoir? Am I missing something, or have I overstated or misstated anything?

A Knight’s Tale Relishes Its Silliness

My students are practicing using the “they say/I say” rhetorical structure in class by responding to a movie review of A Knight’s Tale. This is my own contribution. I find the “they say/I say” structure a very practical and flexible structure for students to use. It almost instantly adds a maturity to their writing they otherwise have not had.

In his 2001 review for New York Magazine Peter Rainer offers a harsh critique of the film A Knight’s Tale. Rainer claims the movie attempts to demonstrate “that there’s no essential difference between then and now.” To make his point, he likens each character to our modern equivalent: the hero’s friends are groupies, complete with squires as buddies, a herald as PR agent, and a pretty lady oogling from the luxury boxes.

By focusing on his thesis that the movie wants us to see how “the fourteenth century was as glitzy and starstruck as our own,” Rainer entirely misses the film writers’ self-consciousness. Surely the writers were not trying to convey a real parallel between the middle ages and the modern world. A noble woman sneaking around men’s tents at night? A prince declaring a peasant a knight because the peasant was tough? Next, a historian might counter, you’ll tell me a king wrote the Magna Carta. At practically every turn, any historical record shows the medieval world is strikingly different than the way the movie portrays it. But before criticizing the movie for this difference, shouldn’t a viewer stop to realize the writers were surely aware of how discordant their story is with history, and that it must have been part of their point? In A Knight’s Tale, filmmakers have reveled in setting the archetypal rags to riches and David & Goliath plots of sports movies in a completely new place. They’re committing the same old clichés in all the new ways, and like homecoming dress-up days, we revel in A Knight’s Tale because we know it’s silly and we think its clichés are fun. In the climactic moment of this movie, William jousts against the world’s second best jouster without armor or a helmet. Somehow—through quick edits and close-ups—his opponent completely misses him, and William knocks the guy off his horse. In sum, anyone who sees an ending like this and does not recognize its aspirations to silliness has been weighed, and found lacking.

Asking Student Writers to Keep a Commonplace Book

First, an admittance: I’ve never liked Nancy Atwell’s “writing territories” method for coming up with ideas for writing. I see how it works but having been employed outside of education a little and written a bit myself, I have never recognized its similarity to what writers do. Maybe some writers have the liberty to pull from such lists for topics, but I can’t envision people who write for a living–say a marketing or PR employee or even David Brooks or Marueen Dowd–checking their writing territories for ideas about what to say.

More often I see writers entering into or attempting to begin a broader conversation. (This is one reason I so value Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say I Say, a book that frames academic writing as participation in an ongoing conversation.) In this regard, writers are not exploring personal territories so much as responding to ideas they have discovered. That is why for years I have given my high school students more direct prompts to which they need to respond. Each prompt has flexibility and usually I offer multiple prompts, but I am convinced the act of responding to a concrete idea is more “authentic” to what writing in life is like than diving into writing territories. It also, I find, offers students more opportunities to stretch beyond the personal narrative.

Happily, a personal experience of my own has pushed me into a new way of exploring writing ideas, one I hope will combine the positive aspects of Atwell’s writing territories with the relevant conversation-framework of Graff and Birkenstein. For Christmas a student of mine gave me a notebook that reads on the front, “Shakespeare never tweeted a sonnet,” which is of course a cute knock on my penchant for playing with Twitter. I wanted to use the notebook for something I’d treasure and decided I’d take my informal commonplace book and move it offline (I used to use a tumblr but later merged it with this blog).

Allow me to pause to explain the commonplace book. A commonplace book is more scrapbook than journal. Most sources, like Wikipedia, observe that it is “filled with items of every kind.” In this sense a writer of a commonplace book gets to choose entirely what goes into it. Most commonly people place quotes, ideas, reactions to passages (with portions quoted), poems, or more. Alan Jacobs observes that “a book full of such passages would be a treasure-house,” which means that it is filled with materials “that you expect will repay repeated consideration.” That is, it contains passages, quotes, and ideas you’d want to look back on and reconsider.

Using my new notebook for this commonplace book purpose struck me as a good idea because when I come across great passages in my reading I usually do not transfer them to the computer and thus rarely write them down (hence the relative infrequency of posts here). Plus, I never return to browse my old entries online, though I have searched for passages in my blog when I know they’re there. This behavior misses the purpose of the commonplace book and falls under the warning of Jacobs’s nicely aphoristic point: “wisdom that is not frequently revisited is wisdom wasted.”

Shortly after rejuvenating my own (and loving the process), it hit me: why not have my students keep a commonplace book, if only for a time? Through the process they can not only see how writing is engaging in a conversation but they can learn how to enter one. Plus, the process will encourage good reading habits, like reacting to particular passages and noting key ideas.

So my juniors are keeping one for a month to enable them to discover what the process is like. At the end of the month, I’ll ask them to write an article using some of the material they’ve collected in their commonplace books. I’d like to see if we can roll the task over and convert that article into their research paper (and why not, since the commonplace book is in part a way of tracking research?), but exactly how to do that will take some additional time and thought.

To begin, I’ve created a handout explaining what commonplace books are and am encouraging students to read whatever they want (I do have a nonfiction reading list to give folks some ideas in case they need one). They seem amendable to the idea, perhaps since it gives them so much freedom and because “just” jotting quotes and passages is less straining than composing journal entries.

It’s a “we’ll see” project this year, but I am excited, because it mirrors the process “real” writers are using. Consider how much it echoes Kevin DeYoung’s process, as he describes it in Crazy Busy:

I suppose every writer has different routines for writing. When I know what my next book is going to be, I start reading for it about a year in advance. I collect articles and blog posts. I jot down stray thoughts. I usually read twenty to twenty-five books before beginning to write.

DeYoung and others like him may have writing territories that invisibly guide them to their choice of topics, so I acknowledge such territories may have a place in our teaching of writing, but since his process so clearly mirrors the keeping of a commonplace book, I get the sense that in assigning one, I as a writing instructor am exposing my students to a proven process for writing intelligently and substantively.

And that’s worth noting.

Thanks for reading.

Reading The Road as a father, vulnerable to McCarthy’s probing tension

I remember enjoying Life Is Beautiful while in college: the quirky Roberto Benigni created a character I’d hope to be, and the peek into one story struck me as a poignant way to capture the tragedy of the broader genocide that was the Holcaust. At least, that’s how I remember thinking about it, and the positive memories are why I assigned my sophomores to watch it fifteen years later when I was out of class for some meetings.

They didn’t finish the film with the sub and I had to show the last 30 or 40 minutes or so when I returned. It did not go well for me. Within five minutes of hitting play my stomach was tied. When we finally reached the scene where little Joshua hides in the junction box and his father is taken away and shot, I left the room, afraid I’d throw up. What was different from my college experience? Becoming a father had made the movie unwatchable.

I wonder, as I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with my students, if they can comprehend this fatherly perspective, or are they as clueless to the gut-level connection as I was the first time I watched Life Is Beautiful? The first time I read The Road I withheld any positive acclaim until the end, muttering to McCarthy with every page, “Do not do this. If you do this, I will hate this book like no other.” I never had to utter to myself what “this” was any more than McCarthy’s narrator has to explain what is on the man’s mind: “He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?” (29). I knew with the first mention of “it” what McCarthy meant. The pit in my stomach, the one that drops into place the moment I read a sentence of The Road, told me what “it” was.

The pit, or whatever it is that leaves me on the edge of sickness and threatens to push me off it, arises particularly from the juxtaposition of the father’s knowing watchfulness and the boy’s sweet peacefulness, which we see immediately in the novel. For example, with the pistol out and ready, the man sees the same sweet sleeping idiosyncrasies any parent sees from their child: “He just sat watching the boy sleep. He’d pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets” (5). The boy’s sleep prevents him from seeing what consumes his father: “He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day” (5). And when the boy wakes the two elements crash:

The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.

I’m right here.

I know. (5)

The tender boy sees his father and greets him, a moment in which any father would want to bask and respond in reciprocal tenderness–that is to say, it’s a moment where I would, so I assume any father would as well–but instead he answers by assuring his son that he is watching, that he is here, because that is what consumes him and how he must express his love. It is sad that it must be this way, but it works, for the boy’s response acknowledges his understanding and trust in his father. He knows his father is there, he doesn’t have to be told.

What a pang such tension brings me as a father. I know what it is to watch over my sleeping son, his face relaxed, his body vulnerable. Yet the joy of my looking at him arises from the contrast of his sleeping self with the buoyant energy that fills our home when he’s awake. Like the father in The Road, I see him as my charge, my “warrant,” but to me this is a responsibility within my grasp. It’s a duty of character development and moral guidance, not a task of raw survival and violent protection. In my gut I know no extremes exist to my willingness to protect him, but I need not imagine such circumstances, let alone plan for them or expect them.

This book is a long metal pole McCarthy has probed inside me, and with it he is pressing the nerve endings of my fatherly spirit. That nerve is central to what it means, to what it feels, to be a father, and even when aware of the novel’s ending, I find myself muttering, “Don’t press me too hard, McCarthy. If you rupture that nerve, I’ll never forgive you.”

 

An example of my students’ insight into Gatsby:

The following is a comment on a discussion thread with my students. We were processing The Great Gatsby, and this student was interested in the relationship between Gatsby and Nick:

I was wondering what draws Nick to Gatsby. In a way, Nick is obsessed with the mysterious Gatsby. It can’t be because there haven’t been great things said about Gatsby only awful rumors. Because Nick is not used to the aristocratic society, Gatsby’s wealth is alluring to him. It goes the other way too. Why does Gatsby trust Nick so much? They have never met before and now that they have met, they don’t spend that much intimate time together. Gatsby has no true friends so Nick acts as a sort of safe zone from all of the wealthy men and women around him. I think that the Gatsby-Nick relationship symbolizes the relationship that Gatsby hopes to have with Daisy but never achieves it which could be an explanation to why Gatsby hangs on to Nick until the end because he never gets the dream relationship with Daisy so he holds onto the relationship with Nick for as long as possible. Of course Nick has ties with Daisy but I think that Gatsby has more complex motives than the apparent surface motives, a complete example of modernism.

I’ve added the italics to highlight the part that blows me away. I hadn’t considered that before at all, but it’s a seriously astute observation.  Gatsby can’t have that relationship with Daisy because his love for Daisy is based in the past, but his relationship with Nick doesn’t carry that burden of the past and can be what it is and just what it is. Nick views him without judgment (possibly not to Nick’s credit, as he overlooks some things that perhaps shouldn’t be brushed aside so easily) and is able to accept Gatsby for who he is, admiring his wealth and charm instead of looking down upon him for being new money . . .

Teaching is amazing. With barely any effort I could find another batch of insightful comments from my students about this book, insights that make be a better reader and more intelligent person. Why do English teachers  know the books they teach so well? Because they remember all the brilliant insights their past students have shared.

Needless to say, I love my job.

Rethinking the way I use outlining as a prewriting tool

Make an outline. Or a bubble map. Or something.

That’s what learning writers have to do, right? An outline demonstrates that the writer has planned what they’re writing and haven’t just jotted down the first ten random things that popped into their heads, or, worse yet, jotted down five things but repeated the second and third in between each of the others. The procedure echoes what many of us have been taught–I certainly had to create an outline for most of my papers in high school–as well as the great guides that have managed to hold sway in an era of little authority. Stunk and White, for example, point this out under the heading, “Choose a suitable design and hold to it”:

In most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape. . . . all [forms of composition] have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and blood. The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success. (15)

In that vein this year I have re-asserted the importance of the five paragraph essay. The five paragraph essay has always been something I have taught, so it’s not like I’m returning to doing my job; I’m just assigning more of them and giving them higher prominence, so as to force students to engage in the process that Strunk and White articulate. I enjoy having students create reflective writing and assign quite a bit of it, but I’ve increased my use of the five paragraph essay under the adage of, you can’t break the rule till you know the rule. If students can organize a rigid essay, perhaps they can better organize a reflective one.

Paired with this reassertion comes a call for outlines, which I’ve instructed students to create before they write each five paragraph essay. In my utopian moments I plan to approve their outlines before they begin the actual writing, but in reality I simply have them hand in the outline along with their final draft, because I never seem to have time in class to check with everyone before they’re ready to write.

A copy of J.K. Rowling's plot map for Order of the Phoenix.

A copy of J.K. Rowling’s plot map for Order of the Phoenix.

The struggle I have had with this method is that many students create their outline after they write the actual paper, even though those weren’t my instructions. For a long time this drove me crazy, as the point was for students to plan their writing before they began jotting sentences. No matter how much I repeated the purpose of the outline, they’d skip it, saying it’s not how they do things. “It’s how I do things!” is the response I was tempted to shout at them.

As I’ve thought about that imaginary response a bit longer I’ve realized the reality: it’s not how I do things. It’s how I assign writing, but it’s not how I write. When I write, I have a general idea in my head, a basic direction, and once I can dimly see that picture I begin, game to see where the words will take me. As usual, that’s what I’m doing with this article. I know where I want to go, but I don’t have some outline nearby giving me direction. I carry a mental image of my purpose, which, if I were to draw it, would have soft edges and fuzzy, indistinct words.

How relevant, how genuine, is my insistence that my students draw this outline when I do nothing of the kind myself? In the past I’ve justified that discrepancy by pointing out that I learned to outline so efficiently when I was younger that I do that in my head; in that sense, my claim was that for me the outlining and organizing step is at the point of being automatic or unconscious. But I think that is a bit disingenuous, because usually I don’t go that far in my thinking. Usually once I get a clear idea of my goal I begin trying things out.

A couple weeks ago a student handed me his paper, and when he realized he’d forgotten his outline, he took the paper back, sketched a quick picture of his organization, and resubmitted it. The moment he did that I realized, why not?

Why not let my students write their outlines after they write? If they can draw a picture of their organization, then it’s there; the chronology is a moot point. If they can’t even draw a picture of it, however, then that should clue both of us into their lack of organizational structure and give me a good area to instruct my student in writing better.

To this point I have sighed at my inability to dictate procedure. Now, I think, I’ll not so much sigh at it as embrace it. Looking at it this way, I can say openly to students that I don’t care when they map out their paper, just that they do, because if they can’t draw or outline their structure, it isn’t there.

Perhaps, in that way, the outlining can be one more way to demonstrate to students what great writing does.

As always, we’ll see.

Thanks for reading.

Comedy: A Few Moral Considerations

The following is a handout I created for my American literature students as we consider comedy and its role in literature. While I have always respected E.B. White’s comment that “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind,” I do think that we can misapply what White is talking about if we use it as an excuse not to discern and appreciate what we consume when it comes to comedy and humor.

Comedy: A Few Moral Considerations

Since part of the essence of comedy is recognizing an inconsistency, it is small wonder that comedy is so frequently a tool of reproof, a tool often used to expose behavior that is morally inconsistent or false. Yet as comedy enters this territory it often broaches subjects and behavior we would not endorse or commend. What should we make of that? That and a few other questions come to my mind as we consider the moral aspect of comedy, and I thought we could explore some of them in this handout. In his book Realms of Gold, Leland Ryken addresses some of these ideas, and I have framed his comments as answers to a few questions.

Why does comedy so often address touchy subjects, or subjects that would normally be socially awkward to discuss?

  • “There is a logic to comedy. A comic handling of a sensitive subject is one way to distance it so it can be viewed from a safe distance.”
  • “Comedy thrives in a spirit of freedom from ordinary restraints, with the result that we normally find it funny when someone displays a flagrant disregard of normal inhibitions.”

Should we laugh when we see others in pain?

“An important part of the dynamics of comedy is that the audience feels superior to the comic victim. Secure from the threat of what is happening to the victim, we are in a position to laugh at something that we would find painful if it happened to us in real life.”

When we laugh at someone, even a character, are we consequently mocking them?

  • “In the very act of laughing at literary characters, we acknowledge that life is this way. We do not wholly approve of human nature as we look at it, but neither do we for the moment sit in harsh judgment of it.”
  • “Comic art possesses in the highest degree that faculty shared by all art, sympathetic vision.” – Ernst Cassirer
  • “The vision of comedy is social, in contrast to the focus of tragedy on the individual.”

Does comedy potentially look past folly or vice, to excuse it?

In one sense, it does:

  • “Both tragedy and comedy reconcile us to common human failing. But tragedy makes us fear it, while comedy makes us comfortable with it.”
  • “Comedy reduces people to the common lot of the human race and declares it good.”
  • “In the act of laughing tolerantly at human misconduct, we withhold our moral judgment, no matter how temporarily. The strategy of comedy is generally to make us relax our sense of moral judgment against the moral failings that we observe.”

Is relaxing our judgment against vice ever a good thing?

There is a sense that comedy helps us cope with our own limitations and fears: “Reading stories about human failing can serve the beneficial purpose of helping us cope with a ‘given’ of our own experiences in a fallen world, namely, human failure.”

Aside from biting satire, can comedy be used to to reprove human folly?

  • There is a sense in which comedy done well can be seen as “a compassionate reproof of human weakness.” In this sense, there is correction, but it is coupled with compassion.
  • “A spirit of forgiveness hovers over comedy.”
  • “To laugh at human error as we do in comedy is to know that we have surmounted it.”

Comedy is often praised for being “irreverent.” Will comedy inevitably corrupt moral standards?

  • Certainly it can be used to corrupt standards, but comedy itself is likely not the corrupting force, and comedy gets rid of moral standards at its own cost: “The force of humour is frequently dependent upon stirring our sense of the incongruity between what people do and what they ought to do. Humour can rarely afford to dispense with the yardstick of traditional morality.” – Harry Blamires
  • “It is dangerous, though, because of its status as a weapon of destruction and nothing more.” – Aaron Belz
  • “It’s important to know that satire functions as an anti-rite, relies on shared values, so it’s equally vital that we double back and identify the positive source of the satire we appreciate.” – Aaron Belz

Is comedy immoral?

It is probably helpful to separate the ideas of morality and taste. A joke may be moral in nature (that is, it may teach a fundamentally moral lesson) but be indecent in content.

Similarly, a joke might also have an immoral thrust to it and be “decent” in terms of appropriateness. However, if this immoral thrust is truly immoral, according to the audience, will the audience find it funny? It seems unlikely, since, in such a case, it is likely that the humor would be deemed untrue, transgressing what E.B. White observes about humor: “I don’t think I agree that humor must preach in order to live; it need only speak the truth–and I notice it always does.”

Sources

  • Belz, Aaron. “On Satire.” Comment. Cardus, 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.
  • Ryken, Leland. “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Comic Spirit in Literature.” Realms of Gold. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1991.
  • White, E.B. “Preface.” A Subtreasury of American Humor. E.B. White, ed. New York: Modern Library, 1941.