Baruch Fall 2015—Writing II, Section 2150
Day 1, Monday August 31
An unceasing knot in my stomach. All eyes on me. I awkwardly sent smiles to students, to show that I was friendly. I was sweating, profusely. I fumbled with papers to occupy myself. Anxiety flooded me, tidal waves of dread bashed against me at the expectant eyes of the students. I wanted to flee, yet I was so excited to be there in that position. I was so pumped at the prospect of being a professor of writing and English, my passion, my drive.
Thankfully, this mixed bag of feelings immediately dissipated once I started going over the syllabus. A lot of the students kept trickling in, interrupting by letting the ancient door slam, but I continued. After I went over the syllabus we went around and said a little bit about ourselves. By the time we finished all this we barely had time to read Octavia Butler’s “Positive Obsession.” I wanted to read it to set the mood of class: writing is a positive obsession. So we didn’t have enough time to read it and I asked them to read it at home and we would discuss it next class.
This very first day went well. Awkward, and very sweaty, but well.
Day 2 Wednesday September 2
Second day, I felt much more calm, at ease. I was in my element. Or at least felt that I am. I vigorously prepared questions, points of departure, backup topics in case conversation ran stale. Surprisingly, it didn’t. Students were highly engaged. Talkative. Well, at least half of the class was.
The beginning of class commenced with me writing on the board: “What is good writing? Reading?” My hope was for the class to center around the process of writing, and what to look for in “good” writing. I wanted to dissect Woolf’s “How Should One Read A Book,” Eli Clare’s “The Mountain,” Roxanne Gay’s “Bad Feminst,” and Octavia Butler’s “Positive Obsession,” seeing what we liked and didn’t like about those writers’ approaches to writing and material. Rhetoric, style, voice, audience, purpose, intent, literary devices, comparing/contrasting all came in conversation at some point or another. Inevitably, conversations were derailed, led off topic, or into other interesting areas of thinking. Somehow, to my amazement, I managed, almost seamlessly, to weave unrelated topics back into the discussion of writing. For instance, at one point the conversation dovetailed into what is good activism and whether online activism constitutes proper activism. Many of the women liked online activism, many of the men did not. One male student said
I articulated something along the lines of this: online activism, whether effective or not, does something. Whether in the world or for you specifically. Imagine it as an experiment in your thinking, constructing your thinking, composing thoughts, wondering/caring about your audience. The entire act of posting something to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and all the other outlets of online reaching out, is an act of writing, is a part of the writer’s process. Even if you never click “post” and totally scrap the words you constructed, you did something. You changed yourself. You managed to put together words to share a message. Even if you posted something online, hated it several minutes later and deleted it, you are doing something. The point is not to change others. Believe me, you will try the rest of your life trying to change others opinions and beliefs. Most of the time it will never work by this method. The goal, for this class, is not to try to convince or persuade anyone of anything. It is to compose thoughts, articulate them, and allow for someone else, or even yourself, to engage with them, do something with them. Think about the Clare and Gay piece. Is Gay trying to persuade you t become a feminist? Is Clare convincing you of anything other than merely laying out on the table his lived experience, his many intersecting realities? No, none of the writers we engaged with today were trying to convince you or persuade you. They wrote something and offered you that writing. They said, “here are my words, here are my thoughts, do what you will with them.” This is what I want from you. Offer us your ideas, not with the purpose of changing opinion or persuasion, but with the sole goal of suggesting new ways of understanding, new outlets in which to think, new perspectives. Add your voice to the foray.
I was extremely proud of myself. In fact, I rather enjoyed when the conversations were derailed. It allowed me to challenge myself, see what I was made of. The experience felt in many ways like improvisation. I constantly had to be aware to shifting scenarios, altered situations. I was forced to think on my feet. This made class exciting and, actually, very fruitful for the students because it showed them, even when it seems like we weren’t talking about writing or analytic skills, we actually were. It felt great to tie in their seemingly disconnected conversations back to writing and reading. I think the message was driven home when I literally told them that by them staring at me, listening to me, is a way of reading the world around them. They are always reading, analyzing, writing—this idea seemed to click wonderfully.
On the board we amassed a great list of words associated with good writing and reading skills, and promised ourselves we will hold ourselves accountable for performing/embodying them for the entire semester. I also made a separate list on the other side of the board for unfamiliar/familiar terms related to our readings. Ableism and able-bodied were terms completely new to them. We glossed over it, due to time constraints, but I want to desperately return to the conversation about articulating what those terms actually mean and how to confront them. Feminism and sexism was clear and understood. It was also really generative to put terms like sexism, feminism, racism, homophobia, ableism, and other terms on the board in order to make those terms less foreign and usable. I want them to engage with those terms as much as possible throughout the semester. Near the end, I asked if there were any terms we didn’t put on the board and a student, nearly inaudible, said: “White Supremacy.” I, of course, laughed at my inability to remember white supremacy. When I asked if we were all clear on what white supremacy was, students’ meekly nodded heads. An immediate tension and awkwardness ensued. I didn’t push the conversation any further, but it will come up again. My readings guarantee it. I estimate that confrontations amongst students will probably occur. If not, there will be just more awkwardness. I’m trying to figure out a way to soften the awkwardness.
How does one maintain political correctness but still challenge political correctness? How does one ensure they aren’t hurting any one’s feelings but are also challenging those feels since they originate in racist, sexist, ableist, and so on, feelings? How does one integrate unfamiliar and/or challenging terms in a classroom effectively such as able-bodied, heteronormativity, and other rarely used but important terms?
Touchy, sensitive subjects we approached today. Most especially race. I forewarned them that we will be having a lot more awkward, ugly conversations. Some seem eager for the challenge, I can tell. Overall a great and productive second day.
Day 3, September 9
The aim for today was very different than its outcome. I did something relatable: contemporary pop culture. I had them analyze Nikki Minaj’s video “Anaconda” and Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” The overall point of class was to utilize their analytic skills to debate why these texts were or were not feminist manifestos. I put them into groups and I wanted them to argue for every side. Why Anaconda was and wasn’t a feminist manifesto, and similarly for Taylor Swift. I told them they had to use the video and supplementary reading to support their claims. I really wanted to do a comparison and contrast exercise to help them with the language they will need for future class discussions and for papers.
The conversation spiraled over and over again into racist and sexist territory. I continuously tried to spin the statement around to let other students challenge it, or to even find a way to challenge the student who said it. More likely than not, the conversation will detail even further. Thankfully, the students’ opinions were in so many different places and many challenged each other on their ideas. So I was thankful for the fact they all had such different ideas on subjects.
I kept trying to return to the videos and demonstrating ways in which the text themselves supports and doesn’t support the claims they are making. I wanted them to practice the kinds of things I would be looking for in their later papers. Many of them did this, many of them not. I had a hard time gauging if the class material was productive and effective in my goal of cultivating good analytical skills and practice. Next time, I might reconsider the two videos even though I wholeheartedly believed that because these texts were relatable and current it would have been approached differently. Unfamiliar texts actually forces them to go to the text to support their claims. Very interesting, very interesting.
Day 4, Thursday 10
Incredible class. Read Eula bliss’s and Joan Didion’s goodbye to all that. Talked excessively on style, rhetorical choices, differences between the two texts. They were genuinely interested in talking about process of writing and critiquing the writing itself versus just gauging content. That was mostly our class conversation. Very fruitful.
There were many open conversations about writing and the process. Many thought good writing equals good grammar, proper punctuation, mechanics, etc. I wanted to break this understanding. I told them to stop worrying so much about grammar. Think on cohesiveness, less choppy sentences, syntactical variety, pace, and analysis. Think of writing as about their ideas, their use of language, not as about their ability to be proper and correct. Though many ESL and beginning English writing students need that foundation, do not get me wrong. I just wanted them to think of writing as something other than jus the policing of grammar, or an obsessive disposition towards writing as merely just getting everything grammatically correct. One student, an English language learner, to my delighted surprise, came in defense of grammar. Specifically, the comma. He came up to the board and wrote a sentence and said how important, in his language (Russian), the comma or punctuation is for meaning making. As in English, of course. I forget the sentence but he wrote something where you could place the comma in two different places and it would vastly change the meaning. I found his comment and observation brilliant for a list of reasons. The most important being the importance of grammar, not for the sake of being right or wrong in how one uses it, but rather how the usage of it can drastically change meaning. Grammar, in this instance, was not just about proper usage of English, in the snobbish, stuck-up way of understanding it, but was transformed into grammar as pivotal to content and to writerly intent. To me this was a wonderful example he brought up that proved to be a teaching moment for myself and others. I will incorporate this for future classes by detailing grammar as important for meaning making.
Today’s class was the first class students did a brief essay. I asked them to write an essay either saying goodbye to all that, why they would want to leave New York, or hello to all that, why they would want to stay in New York. I told them to imitate the style of didion and bliss, if they needed to, or try their own style. The bliss and didion was a roadmap, of sorts, I said, a foundation for you to leap off. I told them I would write one as well.
So after about 25 minutes or so I asked for the students to share their essays. Only one student wanted to. He read it, and afterwards I gave him feedback. All positive. I told him it was great how he started general in his ideas and then slipped into the personal. I told him he also was very specific in his points, making the essay clear as to what he was trying to get across. He told me that other professors and teachers in the past have given him low grades on his writing. They also told him that he wasn’t that good of a writer. A flurry of emotions surged in me: anger, sadness, frustration. Here was a student openly stating that someone doubted him, that someone didn’t see something in him, that someone stifled his creative abilities before they were ever able to flourish. In that moment, I felt it, that rush of feelings, that knot in the gut knowing there are professors and teachers out there who kill the creative energies of students. No wonder why don’t have that many students flocking to English departments. I was bothered extremely by this statement but so grateful for his honesty. In response, I immediately told him look at what he just wrote. To me, I said, those are the words, the reflections, the ideas of a writer. I also told him those teachers were not very good teacher who told him that. Then I reiterated to the class as I have done before: you are all writers, whether you know it or not. When you sit in your room, when you sit on the subway, whether your firing random thoughts, or thinking on a subject in cohesive, sequential statements, your writing. The only part your missing is documenting it somewhere. You are always writing. You are all always writers.
They seemed to appreciate these words. They might have even seemed surprised. None of my students in that class are English majors. Not a single one is any kind of humanities major. All business. And the fact I said this seemed to have moved them. Something stirred in a lot of the. At least, I hope it did.
I then read my piece since no other students wanted to read theirs. Mine was titled, “Hola To All That.” It was an extremely personal piece about coming to New York City, trying to flee my latino-ness/brownness, to only find those ties to my people and culture, after three years in New York, grow stronger. They seemed to appreciate this breach of professorly I could see the general nods of recognition and approval after reading the piece. I hope by reading mine they will be more willing to be open with their writings and ideas.
Afterwards the student who said he wasn’t a writer said, “that writing for him is a way to de-clutter his mind.” He used to write a lot more when he was younger but stopped. He felt that writing “allowed for all the clogged feelings that you get in life to be removed.” I loved this. I told him that was a brilliant analogy. I then gave them an impromptu assignment based off what he said: keep a log/journal about a topic. Log random thoughts about topic. Sequential Sentences. Words that associate with that topic. Just write. Let whatever they want to say to be said. Without the care for audience or purpose or a thesis. Write.
They will bring it next Wednesday when we have class. I am very excited to see what they do with this.
Overall, I’ve been over prepping for class, not even being able to get to everything, but found sometimes that in-the-moment teaching ideas and assignments honestly generates such great thinking and learning for students. Its much better way to gauge their needs as we go along rather than rigidly sticking to a plan. The impromptu ideas and assignments tend to also cater to the students interests more too.
Many questions I left asking myself, and I hope they left asking themselves, too: What are the distinctions between creative writing and analytic writing? Is there even a distinction? Can the two go together?
I find when I ask them these tough questions it immediately engages them. All of them. Their eyes focus, their mouths curl, they contemplate. They pick at their brains. This, honestly, is one of the best reactions to receive from students. It makes me feel all giddy and excited to know that my questions are actually provoking their thinking. And, in turn, their responses always provoke mine.
Today’s class was a breakthrough teaching experience for me.