I found the Brooke’s piece particularly tugging at me from many directions. The examples of underlife, at least for me, can really harbor on the point of rude. This productive side-chatter, I can, as Brooke’s notes, can apply the concepts of class. However, I think there are a plethora of ways in which this chit-chatter cannot be productive. Take for instance, the relationship of the two students and the engagement of students in general in class. Not to mention the position of the actual professor, that is, their physical body and identities that they occupy, can make for this chit-chat or non-traditional modes of learning be sites of contention. As someone who has experienced this kind of chit-chat, side conversations, open jokes, I would never assume they were engaging with the ideas or materials productively for many reasons. I am uncertain how I should feel or how far I can take Brooke’s examples.

Close to the ending of the essay the relationship and management of identities within the classroom really emerged: ” It is in this desire to shift roles, from student to writer, from teacher-pleaser to original thinker, that writing instruction comes into greatest conflict with the existing educational system, and also has the most to offer it” (152).  This urges the question: what kinds of students are we perhaps discussing? The teacher-pleasers of the class tend to also be the ones most interested, most engaged with the material and their writing, the ones who are actually doing that original thinking. On the other hand, oddly, the students who do not try to please at all, and should for the sake of their grade, could care less about pleasing, less about original thinking, and ever less so on their writing. This is perhaps a bleak outlook on the kind of possibilities he is calling for, but I am skeptical of them. I am completely on board for the idea to unsettle the scripted identities we place on students, in order to get them to be writers and original thinkers, but there has to be a level of care and interest on their part.


Ultimately,  I think a lot of these articles we read regarding composition instruction tend to overlook, or don’t know how to exactly attend to (neither do I for that matter), student interest and care for the class. The blessing at teaching at somewhere like Baruch is you can attend to the instruction of writing through the mediums and texts you find most effective. Therefore, the care and interest from the professor is usually there. However, what happens when the care from students isn’t there at all? What happens when you try to elicit, or grow that care by several means, and nothing seems to germinate? I just don’t know what current institutional road blocks are in the way, if any, that help sever student care and interest in the course. Perhaps it is merely the form of writing, as some of my students have noted. Or maybe it’s just the fact that it is a mandatory class and that makes it seem annoying. I wonder if addressing the mandatoriness of the class, and the politics of importance that ultimately jam English and writing into something that is only important to teach students to write memos without error, that we could actually get to somewhere new in terms of writing and having students interested in being in these zones of conflict Brooke’s addresses.


10.29 Response

“Underlife and Writing Instruction” really made me curious about what my own students are saying when I notice them talking to each other in the middle of class. Often, as a way to politely call them out and also because I am genuinely concerned, I will pause the discussion and ask them if everything is okay, if there is something they want to bring up, or if they have a question. Almost always, the answer is no. I wonder how I might encourage them to share what they are talking about with the rest of the class. If their comments pertain to the discussion, as many of the observed side conversations do in “Underlife,” then I would be interested in hearing them (especially if the students having these side conversations were those who don’t contribute to class discussion). On the other hand, if students did reveal their side conversations to the group, would they cease to function as “underlife” activities and would the students then be deprived of the individuality they are trying to establish? In other words, how can we incorporate these underlife behaviors in class discussion? And should we?

Turning toward Dirk’s “‘I Hope It’s Just Attendance,'” I was somewhat liberated by the conclusion that it might be best not grade participation. As Dirk found in her study, participation is difficult to quantify, and therefore, because professors have a hard time qualifying it, students also have a difficult time knowing how participation is graded.  I’m in favor of doing what I can to create a high-control environment for my students and so wouldn’t be against eliminating the participation grade if it helped with that. Also, I will admit, as a student who rarely spoke up in college, I would have been relieved to find that participation was not a part of my grade. Professionally, I would love to see all of my students participate and I do fundamentally believe contributing to the class discussion is an important part of learning. However, I cannot help but personally identify with those students who are too shy to speak up. Furthermore, participation being a part of my grade certainly never encouraged me to talk more. While I earned good marks on essays and exams, I was so nervous to speak, I often accepted a lower final grade just to avoid talking in class. If the grade isn’t motivating students and might in fact be harming them, then why do we keep the participation grade except out of our own fear that eliminating it will make talkative students quiet? Perhaps scoring participation has more of a symbolic purpose than a functional one. Putting it on the syllabus, in the grading section, is a signal to the students that the course is one that is discussion based. I’m curious to hear where others stand on this… I’d also be interested to know how we all do score student’s participation. On the other hand, I will say I’m all for grading attendance and lateness. These are easy to quantify and I believe being present and on time are good skills for both our professional and personal lives.




Victor’s Post!

I fear my response to Brooke’s text will come off as reactionary, but I nevertheless have to express my disagreement. Brooke’s identification of the student and the writer as two mutually exclusive roles is strikingly reductive. Firstly, I took issue with the fact that the article is basically equating the notion of “student” with “teacher’s pet,” which I personally find offensive (and I seldom get offended). Secondly, I ask myself when being a student became so disreputable. I pride myself in being a student, and given the career path I have chosen, I will always be one. I, too, think of myself as a writer, and yet do not sense any conflict between these two. I imagine Brooke has decades of teaching behind him, which I do not; what I have is my experience as a student, and as such, I actually appreciate the authority of a professor. (I understand the intricacies and dangers of the authorial and authoritative figure; I understand the aversion to institutionalized power that has prevailed in the last fifty years; I understand and appreciate the fundamental need to question the systems [be they epistemological, ethical, etc.] into which we are born—a need that is at the same time an expression of maturity, enlightenment, critique, or however we want to call it). Still, when I enter a classroom, I do so with the full knowledge, or at least hope, that the professor knows more than I do. In an act of trust, I place myself in her hands, expecting to be taught and to engage in thought that I might or might not agree with. I do not find this oppressive; as a matter of fact, I find it liberating. Brooke quotes Knoblauch and Brannon, who argue that “school writing alters the normal circumstances in which writers take initiative to communicate to some reader […].” I find it extremely shortsighted to argue that there are normal circumstances in which a writer comes to her craft (and, to be honest, a little contradictory for a paper who is arguing against institutionalized normality). My best writing, for instance, has come out of class discussion—be it as an elaboration of something I have learned in the classroom, or a reaction to it. This, however, entails that something must be presented to me in class; I believe professors have the responsibility and obligation of, in a certain sense, guiding their students, and this implies (at least) a tacit form of authority; it implies the presence of a certain set of material and rules. I am a firm believer of knowing the rules before breaking them (here, I think of poets who imitate Modernist poetry believing that Pound or Eliot had no idea whatsoever of the poetic rules they were breaking; or critics who think deconstruction can operate outside of the system). Ultimately, I take issue with Brooke for assuming that students in high school or even college are intellectually mature; I do not think they are (I clearly wasn’t, or even am). That’s why we study. The people I have most looked up to in my life are all professors, and to have seen them as my peers when they taught me would strike me as arrogant. I appreciate Brooke’s attempt to find innovative ways of teaching (I encourage it, in fact), but I do not think that he has to do so by undermining other ways of teaching and operating.


Some thoughts on underlife and class participation

This week’s readings on underlife and participation inspired me to think about my Baruch class through the lens of my law school experience.

Just in case you’ve never seen The Paper Chase, law school’s pedagogical standard is the Socratic Method. In classrooms of 80 to 230 students (at Harvard, anyway), each student is assigned to a seat equipped with a microphone, and the professor cold-calls several students each class with the aid of a seating chart, asking them questions about the reading. In the old days, if a student didn’t know the answer, the professor would then ask that student’s immediate neighbor the same question in an effort to shame the unprepared student, although that practice is mostly obsolete. In the first year, students quake in their boots, study obsessively, and never get an answer wrong or admit they don’t know. In the second and third years, students relax and declare without shame that they didn’t read or don’t know the answer.

The underlife at HLS is fascinating. Nearly everyone takes notes on laptops, and if you sit in the back row, you look out over a sea of screens on CNN.com, ESPN.com, fashion websites, and quite a few wedding-planning websites. At least that’s how it was from 2003 to 2006 when I was a student there; things might have changed (oddly enough, I don’t recall seeing people on Facebook, even though it was born on the Harvard campus in 2003).

Looking at hockey statistics or wedding dresses while the professor is talking about copyright law would seem to fall squarely into the category of “private activities whereby an individual divides her attention between class activity and something else.” As teachers, we might initially view this phenomenon as despicable, and Robert Brooke and Derek N. Mueller offer some compelling counterarguments to our initial reaction. On the most basic level, this kind of underlife is a student’s way of asserting her identity beyond the role of student. Viewing overtly unrelated websites in class also conveys a (deniable) negative evaluation of the course; it tacitly states that the course content is not interesting, challenging, or significant enough to warrant full attention. If we believe Robert Brooke, that tacit negative evaluation is a way to “assert one’s fundamental distance from the classroom roles” and to “show that one can think independently” (147).

While I have no statistics to support this, I always suspected that the ubiquitous web-surfing in HLS classes was more about swaggering bravado than anything else. Law school isn’t easy, and surfing the web in class broadcasts one’s disdain for the purported challenges of the institution; it brags, “I’m so smart, I don’t even need to pay attention in class to succeed. My superior intellect spares me from the pains of earnest effort that the rest of you mortals may suffer. What, you need to pay attention to learn and get good grades?” The circulation of these attitudes then generates a kind of odd peer pressure to surf the web during class; if your classmates see you earnestly taking copious notes, perhaps they’ll think you’re some kind of dummy. Better play it safe and surf the web. That set of attitudes is actually my biggest concern about underlife; maybe students who actually want to relax and pay attention feel peer pressure to perform underlife, and to do so in an inauthentic way.

There is another dimension to underlife that Brooke and Dirk don’t discuss but which law school casts in painfully sharp relief: law school cost me $175,000. At that price, shouldn’t I be treated as the consumer in my educational experience, free to participate or not participate as I please? To some extent, HLS recognizes this, and while subjecting yourself to the Socratic Method is mandatory if you show up to class, showing up isn’t entirely mandatory. I think the sense of being paying consumers of the institution may also motivate students’ rampant underlife. The students have purchased the expensive brandy, so they feel perfectly entitled to drink it in the drawing room or the conservatory as they please (or to dump it into a houseplant).

Baruch students may not be paying quite as much, but they’re still paying. To what extent should we be viewing them as paying consumers of their education? And if we do view them as consumers, how should that influence our demands on them and their participation? Perhaps this is misguided, since college freshmen don’t necessarily know what they’re buying when they buy “college,” and they don’t necessarily know what they want to get out of it (or what they’ll wish they got out of it later on in life). I wanted to mention it, though, because participation has become so much more important to me as a teacher than it ever was as a student; non-participation makes my job as a teacher—especially a writing teacher—really difficult. If students are burning to talk but are too shy to volunteer, then I feel like I’m absolutely giving them their money’s worth by pushing them into participating. But if they really just want to do things another way, should I respect their status as paying consumers, free to pour out their brandy?

Incidentally, one of the famous forms of underlife at HLS is a game called Gunner Bingo. Students who constantly volunteer in class a la Hermione Granger are known as gunners, and their subversive classmates secretly ridicule them by playing bingo games with scorecards gridded with gunners’ names; when a gunner volunteers, her name is crossed off of the scorecard. There’s obviously a lot to do with this in terms of Robert Brooke’s article. But even more interestingly, my law school class converted the subversive legacy of Gunner Bingo into an inclusive game in which every single student was gridded randomly onto scorecards, which were then distributed to every student in the class. This one-time subversive, anti-institutional, distancing game turned into an all-inclusive, mainstream, transparent activity. Interesting, right? I never played; it just wasn’t fun anymore.




10-22 Response

This week, I was particularly interested Thomas Wilcox’s essay “Composition Where
None is Apparent” in the Theories of Style collection. Wilcox essentially argues that
incorporating literature into the writing classroom can prove difficult, since the structure, style,
and content of then-contemporary literature is incompatible with the methods for teaching
composition. Of course, “contemporary” in 1965 meant postmodernism, magical realism, Beat
poetry, etc.—all movements that were, indeed, rule-defying, genre-blending, and artistically
shocking to the mid-century literary public. I recognize, then, that Wilcox might have had a
different argument were he writing in the twenty-first century rather than 1965, but I still wonder
why unconventional or innovative literature would be so wholly irreconcilable with successful
composition instruction. Wilcox sounds highly alarmist and even somewhat fearful when
discussing these new literary movements:
We have novels, plays and films in which realism dissolves into fantasy and
fantasy seems terrifyingly realistic; in which all is various, aberrant, and
uncircumscribed; and in which anti-heroes wander senselessly in nightmares of
anti-form…This is the literature we now have; and everything about it would
seem to contradict rather than affirm the principles of language and of
composition we have confidently endorsed for decades. (10)
It seems obvious to me that by presenting students with literature that rejects standard grammar,
form, or organization, that we are in fact teaching them standard grammar, form, or organization
(albeit somewhat indirectly); one must first understand the rules in order to break them. A
postmodern novel, for example, that abruptly abandons all punctuation and dissolves into
gibberish is rhetorically effective only because one understands that “standard” or “proper”
fiction should not abandon punctuation and dissolve into gibberish. Speaking from my own
experience, I recently assigned my students a Paul Auster short story that plays around with form
and genre, and questions the reliability of both its narrator and of fiction more broadly. Rather
than throwing my students into a state of abject perplexity or terror, this story piqued their
interest and led to a productive class discussion on the “truthfulness” of narrative storytelling. I
presented them with this story not necessarily as a model for their own upcoming narrative
essays (although I did encourage them to get creative and experimental if they so desired, which
is perhaps something that 1965 Wilcox wouldn’t approve of), but as an example of the vast
possibilities of writing; that is, how language can be manipulated in a countless number of ways
to elicit different responses from the reader.
Is Wilcox’s vision of composition instruction outdated, then? Or at the very least, can we
say that it is simply a product of its time? Or am I mistaken to discredit Wilcox’s argument?



I also found the Micciche essay very compelling. I, for one, am opposed to the instruction of and reinforcement of “proper grammar” like it’s the neo-plague but the piece was extremely convincing. I thoroughly found the Micciche’s idea that the ability to know how to manipulate grammar is a way in which to continue the classroom project of critical thinking and performing cultural critique. She considering it, vis-a-vis Didion, a kind of “shaping of meaning” which was so riveting. This idea of the “shaping of meaning”came up a few weeks back. I was making a rather charged attack against grammar and my ghostly predecessors/contemporaries who enforce/d it. To my delight, a student whose native language was not English, raised his hand in defense grammar. He came up to the board and presented a sentence and showed the many ways in which the comma could be placed and the meany ways in which that meaning of that sentence could be altered. It was a learning moment for me and coming in contact with the Micciche piece really only strengthens this new found turn for me towards grammar.

Is grammar, then, also a part of style? Can it be recruited under the rubric of style? Be taught as style? The Milic piece also comes into conversation on the role of grammar when it comes to the second theory of style: the individualist style. I have been highlighting to students through reading and their own writing how sentence structure, word choice, and even deployment of punctuation can alter the meaning or make meaning. For instance, we were evaluating Anzaldúa‘s Borderlands/La Frontera (my personal bedside bible) and we had so many powerful conversations related to grammar, style, and even genre. I think through the readings this week and my own readings in my class I have been better able to identify ways in which to have meaningful and productive conversations about grammar that won’t seem didactic or overkill.


10.22 Response

I found the Micciche article very encouraging. She was successful in getting me excited about grammar and the possibilities of language! One of the things I appreciated most was that Micciche offers so many examples from her own lessons. I’m always on the look-out for texts or activities I can try out in my classroom. In particular, I found the list of readings where writers write on the relationship between language and identity (hooks, Orwell, Lakoff, Baldwin ) very useful. I will likely assign one or more of these selections in future semesters, and possibly even later this semester. I think these readings are important because they show students how to write about language. Often we ask students to analyze word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, etc. for a final assignment, and while we do have them practice through class discussions and low stakes writing exercises, we (or I) sometimes neglect to ever give them an example of how “professionals” would analyze language. It’s always informative to see a model of how to write whatever it is you are being asked to write. Additionally, I think these texts could be empowering to the students.

I did question how capable my students would be of writing analyses as thorough as those Micciche’s students wrote in their “commmonplace books.” I noticed that she was instructing sophomore-level students (at least that was what I understood from her notes), so that, in part, explains why they would be more comfortable in analyzing grammar/ language than I perceive some of my students to be at this time. For example, I know I’m still trying to get some of my students to understand what it means to write about an author’s “diction.” Some continue to write about the content of the language, rather than focus on the type of language being used. What other building blocks could we use to get students to a point where they are able to have complex discussion on an author’s use o grammar? I wonder, what would Micciche have assigned to a freshman-level class? Would she still use the commonplace books and simply have different expectations? Would there be more scaffolding to build up to these books? I’m curious to learn of other low stakes grammar assignments we could incorporate into our classes.


Critical Analysis Essay Assignment

This is the second high-stakes essay assignment for my class. Update: I’m thinking of opening this up to TV shows and games as well, and I’d be interested in thoughts on that.

English 2100 Fall 2015

Critical Analysis Essay Assignment

In the first part of this course, we explored narrative, personal, and reflective writing. In this second unit, we are exploring critical analysis, argument, and persuasive writing. Over the last few weeks we have examined debates on contemporary social and political topics in the “Room for Debate” section of the New York Times as well as reviews written by professional film critics about “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Wall Street.”

For this assignment, you are to choose a film and two reviews about that film that take opposing viewpoints. Find these two reviews on www.rottentomatoes.com; you do not need to do any research beyond this website and the reviews to which it links. You should choose one “fresh” review and one “rotten” review. Both of these reviews must be written by critics anointed “Top Critics” on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

In a 6-7 page paper, analyze each critic’s viewpoint, noting the points on which the critics agree and disagree, and take a position as to which argument you prefer. Explain why you agree with one critic over the other, using the film as your “primary source.” You should refer to and discuss particular scenes from the movie to support your claim, just as the critics do. Stylistically, you should think of yourself as a film critic entering into a conversation on equal footing with the two professional critics you use.

How do I choose a film?

You are welcome—and even encouraged—to choose a film you have already seen and already have an opinion about. You should, however, watch the film again at least once over the course of this assignment, even if you’ve already seen it hundreds of times. Be sure to choose a film with sufficient complexity to elicit critical controversy of some sort.

You might choose a film that was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, but didn’t win. Best Picture nominees often prompt extensive critical analysis and a considerable amount of argument between critics. A list of Best Picture nominees and winners is available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Picture. Did you love or hate any of these films? Have a look at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

Or, you might choose a film that won or was nominated for a Golden Raspberry, an award honoring the “worst” films of the year. A list of Golden Raspberry winners and nominees can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Raspberry_Award_for_Worst_Picture. Browse this list for a film that you think is good (there are several films on it that I like) and that you feel does not deserve such disparagement. Chances are that at least one top critic agrees with you, and you are well-positioned to write an essay agreeing with that critic and disagreeing with a critic who gives the film a “rotten” review.

Take a chance with your film choice. Choose a film that interests you and that you do not find boring. We’ll be workshopping your choices and you’ll write a mini-prospectus, so if you’ve chosen a film that will make the assignment too difficult, we’ll find that out early on and can discuss whether you should make a change. If you’re undecided between several possibilities, that’s great! We’ll talk about them in our writing groups and as a class, and we’ll work together to make a choice.

How do I choose the two reviews from www.rottentomatoes.com?

Both reviews should come from the “Top Critics” category on the website. I strongly suggest that you use reviews by critics writing for the New Yorker (Anthony Lane, David Denby, Pauline Kael, Richard Brody), and the New York Times (A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, Vincent Canby, Janet Maslin). The New Yorker, in my opinion, is the gold standard for extremely well-written film reviews (even if I don’t always agree with the analysis therein). Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also writes excellent reviews, as does David Edelstein of Slate, and anything written by Roger Ebert for the Chicago-Sun Times is likely a great choice. There are many other good choices to consider: Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, Desson Thompson of the Washington Post, as a few examples. This is by no means an exhaustive list of great film critics or worthwhile publications; it’s just a bunch of suggestions to get you started.

One review should be “fresh,” or positive, and the other should be “rotten,” or negative. Both reviews should be discuss the film in depth, and the reviews should have some points of clash for you to analyze.

What if I’m feeling truly uninspired and don’t want to choose a film?

You may use “The Wolf of Wall Street” if you use the reviews distributed in class by David Denby and Richard Brody. If you want to write about “Wall Street,” let’s talk about it. Do not choose either of these films if you find them “boring” or have no opinions whatsoever about them. If you’re really stuck trying to think of a film, I’m happy to help.


Wednesday, October 28 – Prospectus due – 1 page (bring 4 hard copies to class)

Wednesday, November 4 – Rough draft due – minimum 3 pages (bring 4 hard copies to class)

Tuesday, November 10 – Final draft due – 6-7 pages (post to the Dropbox folder by midnight)


Victor on Grammar

Fascinated with this week’s readings! And surprised, too, given that one does not usually associate grammar with fascinating. The debate surrounding issues of teaching grammar and style is very much still alive. Even though I felt that Micciche, in trying to vindicate grammar, somewhat stretched the term of “rhetorical grammar” onto other similar yet distinct realms of language, I found her discussion very intriguing and insightful. That is, at some points, I felt that she was discussing prosody or diction, rather than grammar (although these are all certainly related), but even so, she touches on what really seems to be the point of many of these essays: that grammar is rhetorically charged and that, as such, it points to the artificial nature of language, and by association, to our constant manipulation of language for a particular end. Style, then, is inevitably linked to grammar. And even though Milic distinguishes three different views of style, it seems to me that these readings adopt the theory of ornate form, or rhetorical dualism, in that they clearly distinguish between form and content, and particularly in the effects that a particular form can have on an audience. The last decades have certainly seen a demystification of the longstanding conception of grammar as a fixed entity and its implications; nevertheless, I particularly appreciated that they all still value grammar and style, not as only possibly existing in one way, but rather as polymorphous. The SMG rightly advocates for teaching a “particular level of style not as more correct but as more appropriate for specific rhetorical situations.” Micciche several examples are particularly fruitful for the classroom (Eminem!). In order for students to be fully understand the importance of grammar and style, I think we must present them with unorthodox examples that they might easily identify with (or at least recognize culturally), so that they can see how each variation brings with it a certain connotation.


10-15 Response: RefAnnBib

(Apologies for the late posting, I was having wifi troubles earlier today)

I was especially interested in Mark McBeth’s Reflective Annotated Bibliography and how it ensures that our students’ research process is thorough. I’m considering incorporating this assignment somehow (possibly by replacing another major assignment, or by reducing the percentage that their final research paper is worth) but I’m curious as to whether this is slightly beyond the capacities of first semester freshmen. A colleague of mine at the Graduate Center took a class with Mark McBeth recently and had this assignment in lieu of a final paper for the course; he said that the experience was challenging (in a positive way) and engaging, but extremely time-consuming and occasionally difficult. The fact that a graduate student in English struggled with this assignment makes me concerned that it may be, as I suggested, slightly too advanced for my students. I would, however, still be interested in assigning this to my students if I perhaps modified the requirements somewhat and made it a little shorter and easier for them.

This leads me to another question, which is: how much creative liberty are we as instructors allowed when borrowing, adapting, or otherwise incorporating other instructors’ assignments? Are there any professional or ethical guidelines that we should keep in mind, or are we free to pick and choose elements of various assignments in order to create our own Frankenstein assignment?