May 2010 News

Great News: My friend Stephanie has many exciting things to share about her journey through publishing.

Good News: The first four chapters of This Novel are thoroughly revised and nearly polished: thirteen more chapters to go. I researched the heck out of 1945 and now I’m wondering—what was the most elitist champagne to be served in 1988? Any ideas? Give me your 80s memories.

Bad News: Georgia continues fall from grace, grace being the elevation granted by one tiny thread holding it up above Mississippi. I’m talking about education [sic].

On Bad Writing

This week I’ve added some words to This Novel. It is not a tremendous amount, but considering I’d set the project aside for several months and had to get back into it, I feel all right about it. The key to producing material is accepting that early drafts are UGLY and BAD. The key is revision: four-fold, five-fold, however long it takes, however many times a writer has to see (vision) things again.

I share Anne Lamott‘s essay “Shitty First Drafts,” from Bird by Bird, with my composition students, but I’m considering teaching it at the beginning of my literature classes as well. Too many students have the erroneous assumption that they can simply sit down and think for a minute and then type a three page literary analysis paper and be “done.” I try and build tasks of serious revision into our course schedule, but ultimately it is up to the student to give a shit or not. Lamott’s essay explains the necessity of bad first (and second) drafts and clearly articulates one of my most overused teacher phrases, “Writing IS thinking.” Lamott also examines the anxiety that surrounds writing, the anxiety to produce, to be good enough. So, is bad writing okay? Yes, it is a means to better writing, to revision. Is it okay to present it as a final product?–not so much, unless the purpose of said final product is to examine ‘badness,’ as does Steve Almond in his Bad Poetry Corner.

I read an article at Salon by Laura Miller, “Bad Writing: What is it Good for?” I appreciate Miller’s discussion of the abundance of crappy prose. The internet provides the perfect showcase. Miller takes various angles in discussing crappy prose, referencing a list of bad books and Steve Almond’s Bad Poetry Corner. The list of bad books from the American Book Review is tenuous, but I can get behind Almond’s pursuit. The key for the success of Almond’s site is that he already has a marked fan base; he has more than established himself, he is almost an ethos, a cause within cyberspace. One can either praise such self-promotion, which I do because I like his work, or one can find it trite and audacious. I find it fun. I, lacking a ‘platform’ and prurient exposure, should certainly shy away from trying to create any sort of medium out of the horrendous song lyrics and poems that my fifteen year old mind may have birthed. THAT needs to stay in the past. I will never claim to be a poet, probably because I am scarred from reading my teenage endeavors. No need to inflict that adolescent angst on my friends in cyberspace.

Bad writing is a necessary precursor to the good stuff. So, get thee bad writing down. And then, work it up again and again.

Oates on Grief, Teaching, Pursuit

Joyce Carol Oates’ essay, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” in the 2010 The Atlantic fiction issue is a moving examination of loss, grief, and life. Oates discusses losing her husband of 48 years, Raymond Smith. This essay made me love Oates even more, and the level of truth, painful truth, she articulates gives the reader affirmation and new words. Oates speaks what many of us cannot articulate. This examination of grief, life, and profession is a comfort. And I find the below photo, by Eva Haggdahl, to be simply beautiful.

The Long Haul

Why were folks a bit grumpy in grad school? At least, this is how I remember it. A department sans graduate students is downright peachy. This has nothing to do with the individual personalities and everything to do with individuals not being stressed to the gills about a million things. Graduate students in the Humanities deal with a lot of crap–that’s a vague descriptor, but trying to describe some of the complicated issues a graduate student might face would make most folks’ eyes glaze over.

Patricia Cohen, in “The Long-Haul Degree” in the New York Times, explains some of the problems, including the “more than nine years” on average to complete a degree, dissertating, “patching together a mix of grants and wages for helping teach undergraduate courses–a job that eats into research time,” and ultimately facing a bad job market with an increased number of adjunct positions and a receding amount of tenure-track plus benefits type jobs. So, back to the cause of grad school mania, malaise, or grumpiness. Patricia Cohen writes,

Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard and another longtime critic of the Ph.D. production process, notes: “Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process.” In his new book, “The Marketplace of Ideas,” he writes, “Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get.”

I like Menand’s phrases “lives are warped” and “social inefficiency.” Cohen highlights problems with the system of financing, the proposal of broadening research options for degree candidates, and the changing job market. This is a must read for anyone who is currently in, has been in, or is planning to enroll in a graduate program in the Humanities.

“Grit” an Indicator of Teacher Success

I urge all educators to pick up a copy of the Jan./Feb. The Atlantic to read Amanda Ripley’s article “What Makes a Great Teacher?”
I ran into a former student on campus the other day, and my immediate thought was to tell her “Oh, you should be in my literature class now!” She was a wonderful, motivated student who contributed to class and produced strong work. She passed the class long ago and expressed that she got a lot out of it. Why would I want her to experience the same class again? I’ve changed, the class has changed, and for the better. Nothing was necessarily wrong  before, but I could feel some clumsiness, some stops and starts, some instances of wasted energy (at times by me, at times by my students), and I could see some students not exercising their full potential.
Glancing at my syllabi, changes aren’t immediately clear, but I’ve made many incremental changes along the way about how I run my classroom. I’ve executed, assessed, and adapted, repeatedly. I’m not running around searching for new things to teach students, I’m figuring out how to teach them the same material better. The material of certain lessons/lectures has expanded over the years–for example, I now have a great list of movies that capture the essence of the Southern Gothic–but, the basics will always be the same.
In the current issue of The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley explores this topic in her article “What Makes a Great Teacher?” Instructors can present the same material and have the same goals for their students. But, in the college classroom, why might I receive blank stares from one group of students and several voices chiming in from another group of students when I pose the same exact question? Minor factors might include the fact that one class is at eight in the morning and another class is at noon. The more important factors to consider are 1) Do they have an answer to my question?  2) Do they care to answer the question? and 3) How do I get them to that place of care?
Ripley explores why two grade school teachers at the same school, both beginning with the majority of their students testing below grade level, end up with disparate results: Mr. Taylor ends with 90 percent of his students at or above grade level and Unnamed Teacher ends up with only 44 percent of her students at grade level with none above (far worse than her group began).
Ripley’s exploration is a good one, because she acknowledges the complexity of the question, the inherent difficulty in articulating what works. We can see failures in large templates placed on educational systems (no child left behind?) which were designed to make things work. Many things do not work. We know this. But, how do we quantify, document, and then disseminate what does work?
The large amount of data and research collected by Teach for America provides the basis for Ripley’s discussion. Ripley finds an answer:
“At the end of the day,”says Timothy Daly at the New Teacher Project, “it’s the mind-set that teachers need–a kind of relentless approach to the problem.”
I couldn’t agree more. We are never done working on this project of instruction. When we think of Professional Development we might get excited or our eyes might glaze over as we imagine a list of things we have to do to say we did. I can’t even imagine how long this list of things we have to do to say we did is for the average public school teacher.
How can we make a teacher have a “relentless approach to the problem”? Well, Teach for America tries to find the individuals that are like that naturally, naturally relentless. Here are some of the indicators:
What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance–not just an attitude, but a track record. […] Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”–defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, and measured using a multiple choice test–were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer.
Let’s allow our teachers persevere and relentlessly approach their complex problems as they see fit; many hope Race to the Top will give a framework for identifying and rewarding the gritty teachers. And for those of us that teach, let’s take time to reflect on our relentlessness, our grit.

On Language: Part II

On Grammar Girl in the Classroom

I love Grammar Girl.  While driving, I used to enjoy hearing the occasional Grammar Girl podcast on NPR; this was back when podcast was a brand new word. Now, Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, has since penned Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl.

One thing I love about Grammar Girl is the conversational tone of her pieces; the listener doesn’t feel like he’s being scolded. Also, Grammar Girl uses cultural references, song lyrics, cartoons, and humor to entertain. Remembering why a Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones line is grammatically correct or incorrect serves the same purpose as a mnemonic device and leaves a deeper imprint. (That is, if you aren’t too young to know the music.)

Incorporating Grammar Girl podcasts into the college composition classroom works. Every classroom I use has the computer-internet-projector-audio set-up. So, it is easy to pull up the website and play a podcast. I usually present the Grammar Girl version of a concept a week or so after the textbook-type lesson has come up in lecture. I don’t rigidly pre-plan specific grammar lessons, but there are topics that need to be addressed in every 1101 course.

Grammar Girl topics include such titles as “Which Versus That” and “Myself.” Not surprisingly, the most popular tips are “Affect Versus Effect,” “Lay Versus Lie,” and “Who Versus Whom.”

The best part? The opening music is 100% cheese. The music is cheesy, the jokes are cheesy, the cartoons are cheesy, but it works and it is, for once, not exclusively my cheesiness. It is nice to sit back for four minutes, with my students, and become a listener to another professional; the dialogue opens up. After listening to and discussing a Grammar Girl episode, students are likely to voice more questions about language, questions they may have before ignored because they thought the questions were stupid or that they were simply doomed to not ever get it.

Once students see that real people are phoning/emailing the Dr. Drew of language and voicing their questions and complaining about their insecurities, accessibility happens. It’s not as saucy as Loveline, but the objective is the same: demystify…

These concepts are no longer mystifying things that you have to get ‘right’ in order to get an ‘A’ on a paper in that one class. These concepts are things that exist in our language, which is part of everything, so we may as well ask questions and investigate and try to figure it all out. These concepts are not things to hate. These concepts are not things to patently not get.

On Language: Part I

Here is a fantastic NSFC (Not Safe for Classroom) illustration of Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling over at The Oatmeal.

I, by no means, consider myself a grammarian. Oh, wait, but I’m the composition teacher, right? Right. Which means I can’t get away with ignoring my ignorance. That worked for a while; in grad school I would not, did not, register for graduate level English Grammar. Can you imagine such a course? I mean, such a course assumes you have been studying principles of grammar for the previous sixteen or so years of your life. I felt out of the loop.

To this day, I cannot remember one grammar lesson, a real-life scene of grammar instruction, from K-12 school. I blame this on the overcrowded public schools I attended. They were “good” schools on paper, but there were so many of us they had to chop us into groups for instruction. I remember being immediately shuffled into the top ‘reading group’ in kindergarten because I could already read; kindergarten is the first time I experienced boredom outside my house. In eighth grade I was one of six students, out of a class of about three hundred and fifty, in an accelerated English course. By that point I could read and write well enough, and still didn’t know anything about mechanics or grammar–or, at least how to talk about such things. Eighth-grade English consisted of reading really good books, talking about them, and playing many games of hearts. I never once had to diagram a sentence.  

Several things have encouraged me to tackle this previously avoided subject: one, the most base human desire not to embarrass myself; two, my partner; three, to excel at writing instruction. One is self-explanatory, and it ties into two. My partner’s education varies from mine; he had a militaristic education in principles of grammar, among other things. I can’t count the number of times some curious soul at a party has asked me something along the lines of what is up with the whole split infinitive thing? and I’m like, go ask that guy, he knows. I often ask him for writing advice. I still do silly things on paper. We all have bad habits. The fact that I am a writing instructor does not exclude me from misplacing modifiers, flinging around clichés, or committing other various sins of weak writing. This is what revision is for–for fixing things that are not quite as they should be, not the clearest and most precise.

In “On Language: Part II” I will express my love for Grammar Girl, as well as outline how I use Grammar Girl in the composition classroom.

In Defense of Teaching Thinking: Imagination, Society, Assumption

Below is a reprinting of a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 28, Page B6
March 20, 2009

The Humanities’ Value

Why should society support the humanities when so many people are suffering from the effects of the economic crisis? What claim do the humanities, or scholarship generally, have on increasingly limited resources? Shouldn’t such pursuits be considered luxuries at a time when we should be focusing on essentials?

I hear those questions all the time, in part because I ask them myself. When I bother to answer myself, I say that of course we should focus on the essentials. The alleviation of human suffering, the restoration of opportunity, and the resurrection of confidence must be our top priorities. But the present crisis must not be the horizon of our thinking; our most immediate concerns cannot be our only concerns. While we are struggling through the morass of the present, we must retain both our memory, which sustains us, and our imagination, which must light the way forward.

Memory and imagination place us in the general domain of the humanities. And that leads to my main argument: The humanities are, if not the top priority right now, at least one of the areas that must be recognized as crucial, and supported accordingly. The present crisis does not eclipse the humanities but rather reveals the need for the skills, dispositions, and resources that the humanities, and only the humanities, cultivate.

No need to shout. I can already hear you (indeed, I can hear myself) saying that we are dealing with money, not metaphors, and that we will not get out of this mess by entrusting our fate to English majors. True — but I am struck by the recurrence of two statements in the numerous analyses I’ve read: “It is all so obvious in retrospect,” and “Our models failed to predict this.” Put those two together, and it becomes clear that the most sophisticated tools developed to analyze and predict movements in the economy failed spectacularly to grasp some very large, crucial, and — in retrospect — fully visible facts.

How did that happen?

What was missing, some analysts have concluded, was a deeper understanding of the relationship between value and confidence. It was presumed that the value of, say, houses was always going to rise. Beneath that assumption was another, that the value had a certain solidity, like the house itself. However, as Paul S. Willen, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, recently noted, “The price of an asset, like a house or a stock, reflects not only your beliefs about the future, but you’re also betting on other people’s beliefs.” He went on, “It’s these hierarchies of beliefs — these behavioral factors — that are so hard to model.”

The key factor, then, escapes abstract models because it is human and social, not mathematical — a vast imaginative construction composed of hopes, fears, illusions, calculations, judgments. Unlike the house, the imaginative construction that determines the house’s value can be destroyed by a pinprick — hence the term bubble.

So our models failed not because they were imprecise but because they were too precise, too neat and crisp to take in the imaginative and social nature of value. Nor did they take in the fully human character of the behavior of lenders, borrowers, analysts, shareholders, or traders, all of whom were driven by largely unconscious and partly irrational beliefs, including the simple desire for social approval, even as they were persuaded of their own powers of analysis and of the underlying “rationality” or “efficiency” of the market.

It all seems so obvious in retrospect that retrospection itself can be dismissed as a worthless activity. The real gift is to see in advance the things that will, in retrospect, prove to have been obvious. Where is that apparently rare gift cultivated, developed, rewarded? How does society foster that valuable trait?

Well, consider this: When we read a novel, watch a play or a film, listen to a concerto, or read a historical narrative, we are not just attending to the moment but forming expectations about what will come next. Surprise endings surprise only because they do not conform to our expectations.

Comparing our anticipation with the actual unfurling of the work or the sequence of arguments is part of the distinctive pleasure we take in such activities, and that pleasure keeps us returning for more. Such anticipatory or projective retrospection always involves speculation or guesswork, for every piece is unique. But being able to engage in such anticipation is an essential part of general intelligence, and developing that ability is one of the primary goals of teaching in the humanities.

I would suggest that the reason that our models and modelers failed to predict the current economic crisis was that they did not engage in what I call “projective retrospection,” nor did they try to anticipate the diffuse effects of nonquantifiable, shifting collective beliefs. They were, I presume, simply trying to be as rational as possible in plotting their moves. Their imaginations were constrained by their assumption that the economy was a kind of game with arcane rules rather than a human activity embedded in the general human scene.

In truth — as may perhaps by now be obvious — I have no understanding of the “dismal science” of economics. But I feel on firm ground in saying that any discipline that studies human behavior without taking human beings into account must be leaving something out. That something is the imaginative character of human society, which is supported only by collective confidence in its reality. As I write, many analysts are saying that the most urgent task is the restoration of confidence in “the system.” If only people were confident that the system was sound, then banks would lend, people would spend, and the crisis would abate. The truth is that while cash infusions might produce local benefits, a general confidence cannot be bought, for it is a basic attitude about one’s prospects in the world. Irreducible to formulae or algorithms, such confidence nevertheless stands at the top of that hierarchy of beliefs that determines value.

And here we come to the humanistic heart of the matter. The economy in which people do or do not have confidence can be understood as a persuasive fiction that is, in critical ways, not fully responsive to rational analysis. Indeed, the financial instruments whose implosion we’ve been watching — the notorious credit-default swaps and derivatives and securitized mortgages — were so complex and opaque that not even those who staked their fortunes on them understood what they were.

At the deepest level, money itself is a fiction. Money signifies value, which is, presumably, located elsewhere — in the basement, say, of Fort Knox. But gold is only valuable because of a collective belief in its value. Now, with the collapse of financial markets worldwide, we see that all value, everywhere, is a function of confidence, or a belief in fictions. The immense cash infusions on which we now pin our hopes are simply fictions that we hope will be more persuasive than others — not because they are real, but simply because a large power insists that they be taken for real: They are, as the phrase has it, “backed by the full faith and confidence of the federal government.”

Our material lives are sustained by our belief in such fictions, and when we stop believing — as we now have, temporarily — we see revealed the immaterial foundations of the real world. When, a generation ago, a few “postmodern” theorists began to talk about the fictional character of reality, they were laughed at by those who considered themselves hardheaded realists; nobody, not even the most doctrinaire postmodernist, is laughing now.

So why support the humanities? The answer is not just that the humanities deserve no less than Citigroup, AIG, or General Motors — in fact, the humanities do not need a huge bailout, only predictable support — but that the humanities elicit and exercise ways of thinking that help us navigate the world we live in. For my money, that’s about as essential as it gets.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham is president and director of the National Humanities Center. His books include Shadows of Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society (Duke University Press, 1999) and The Character of Criticism (Routledge, 2006).

“Higher Education’s Cruelest Hoax”

There’s a wonderful article on college education in the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic. The June issue isn’t up on the web yet, but should be soon. The article is titled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” and is written by an anonymous adjunct professor of English 101 and 102, Professor X. The blurb before the article reads, “The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a “college of last resort” explains why.” I found myself thinking Yes! Yes! Exactly! as I read this article.

No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass.

I’ve had some wonderful teaching experiences, but I also know what Professor X is saying. How are we to teach the designated composition curriculum to those who are barely literate? Or to those who have never used a computer? Sure, a student might think they need to get a degree, but if your reading level is such that you aren’t ready for high school, and you lack the schemata to organize new knowledge, then what? The student works hard, perhaps, but they can’t pass the class. In college, we should not be giving ‘A’s for effort. Students need to master certain knowledge and skills before moving onto other courses. I could say a more about this, but I’ll stop now for fear of offending anyone. However, do go search out Professor X’s article. He says it all better than I can.

The front cover of The Atlantic reads “Higher Education’s Cruelest Hoax.”

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