Garbage Out, Garbage In

The syllabus for ENG101 “[r]equires students to produce a minimum of 20 pages of writing.” With six sections, and a rough average of 20 students per section, that amounts to a minimum of 2400 pages per semester. My Penguin Classics edition of Moby Dick is only 625, not including the “Explanatory Notes.”

Now I’m getting ready for the new semester, vowing not to make the same mistakes, not to wind up with piles of unread papers on my desk or in Blackboard, not to fail my students by insufficiently commenting on their writing, not to continue avoiding thousands of pages of text that expresses ideas nobody really cares about in a language that nobody actually uses, not to wind up like Alice after reading “Jabberwocky”:

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, ever to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate—’

It’s not the students’ fault, the poor dears: it’s mine. Garbage out, garbage in. I thought I had it covered by encouraging them to choose their own topic—music, zombies, The Avengers, whatever—to try and make the assignment mean something. Eodice, Geller, and Lerner advocate for the same approach in their 2016 book, The Meaningful Writing Project.

But I only got it half right, at most. According to the authors,

In brief, here’s what we found: meaningful writing projects offer students opportunities for agency; for engagement with instructors, peers, and materials; and for learning that connects to previous experiences and passions and to future aspirations and identities.

“Agency” has been my selling point for years, but no student is going to buy it if it’s bogus, if it’s only “new wine in old bottles.” Rhetorical bottles, I mean. Their writing is never going to mean anything if they’re being forced–or feel they’re being forced–to express themselves in a foreign discourse. It’s the dark place where “In today’s society” and “All through history” come from. I don’t know any academics who write like that, but somehow the students think we do.

I once heard English Comp referred to as the “Ellis Island of college.” It’s a good simile. But that process is not without a troubling history: casual brutality, erasure of identity. James Baldwin described the problems with rhetorical assimilation in a 1979 article in the New York Times, entitled, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?“:

It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

So what’s the strategy, then? All good writing, I think, comes from genuine engagement with something, like Ahab engaging with the whale. And while it’s necessary to teach “correct” academic rhetoric, it can only come after a meaningful response to a text, in which the students believe that the engagement matters, and that that their own experiences and forms of expression have value.

I once taught Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper as part of an Intro. to Lit. class at a career college in Rochester. It went quite well, I think, but I’m not sure that the response was what most people think of as scholarly. Feminism was not explicitly discussed. Two of the students, though, were pregnant, and everyone suddenly became interested in Gilman’s depression and the way she abandoned her child. And, by “interested,” I mean that the sound level rose and chairs started scraping across the floor. By the time another instructor came in from the next room to glare at me, the pregnant students were standing up, trading comments from opposite corners of the room.

Another time, while teaching Langston Hughes’ Salvation in a prison class, I wound up on the fringe of one of the most thrilling examples of reader response criticism I’d ever seen. The students didn’t just read the thing: they lived it. One student, whose father had been a preacher at revival meetings in the South, started playing the air bass. Then there was an open sharing of religious experiences, in which I heard about “falling out,” and speaking in tongues. One lone atheist sat in the physical and emotional center of the storm, exactly like Hughes’ protagonist, and held his own very well, thank you. This was all expressed in tones loud enough to cause the Corrections Officer down the hall to show up in the doorway—which, to his credit, was a rare occurrence—and look at me with raised eyebrows, as if I had lost control of the room. Perhaps I had.

There have been other such experiences, instances of discursive heterodoxy which, if not as raucous, were still unusual enough to flag the system. A couple of months ago, for instance, I had almost half a room full of students waiting in line, phone in hand, to come up and show me some of their favorite photos. The topic of discussion was “the feeling of Awe.” I certainly felt it then.

So, the good stuff is out there. And if I want it on my desk, I need to earn it.

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