Writing in the Short Form – Some Examples

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Changeover: post23 for "Artists"

On the answering machine I hear messages full of pressure from the siblings to attend Thanksgiving. Mama’s eighty-six, after all. How many more chances to break bread with her?  She’s been using that argument since she was sixty-four. But I can’t sit at table with my younger brother who pretends to be Daddy. Sorry, I have no stomach for that meal.

Students show separation anxiety when the afternoon class ends. Sweet kids, but six may fail. I post office hours for Friday when they can deliver missing papers. “I won’t chase around after you. That’s the cutoff date.” We’ll see how that pans out. 

I read reflective letters they’re required to submit. Students have learned how to brown nose, anyhow, a useful talent in this world.

So I start a job search to fill the idle months before teaching starts up again. Teaching feels like an addiction I must feed. That same feeling troubled me once before with theater, until the money ran out. Actually, the need to function as producer lasted long after the money was gone, as unhealthy as heroin.

Craig’s list, Monster.com, HotJobs; these are geared toward young people just entering the workforce. Friendly, energetic work environment, it reads. Attention to detail a must, and a strong speaking voice. A good place to learn, flexible hours. (Which means sixty hours a week. Hope nobody was fooled by that one.)

And for this we shell-out $65,000 each for graduate degrees.

I look out at the cold blustery morning. I love the morning hours. My windows fog up and rattle. House wrens squabble on the south sill. I could make that appointment to apply for temp work. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow. 

I send a dossier and writing samples to UIC for a tenure-track opening in the Writing Department. All the universities have Writing Departments now. It used to be philosophy and humanities, now it’s writing and rhetoric. With nothing to say, who cares how well students say it?

I read student short stories from my early class. Three have grown so much, on their way to success at the university. Then there’s Katie who wrote a four-page calm and gentle story told from the point of view of a young girl who watches her brother when he returns from college for a visit. Good foreshadowing. The story turns out that she’s a ghost, and he’s remorseful because she died when he fell asleep at the wheel. 

When I return the draft to Katie and speak of its quality, she blushes a deep red.  I cannot hardly speak to them without scarring them for life. My encouragements to submit the story to the department’s literary magazine will go unheeded. Just the same, students can write in complete sentences now. They know what is an introductory paragraph and dialogue punctuation. Good for me. Who needs Aristotle or Kant when you have the rules of grammar?

I could do some laundry. Best to get that done early so there’s no competition for the dryers. Maybe I’ll complete that chore tomorrow after I get a job.

I read the text for next term’s class I’m teaching. Sandwiched between entry level 102 and the research course 104 is English 103. What does this course offer that’s unique? More of the same? Papers should be longer. Students should perform at a higher level of critical thinking and grammar. The textbook squanders three chapters on body-image issues and a student’s response to Hollywood’s never-ending promotion of underweight ingénues. Maybe I’ll require a book of American short stories as a supplement. How can they be expected to write when they aren’t required to read?
None of it, that is life, seems to fit into a freshman’s curriculum, even when I labor to bring along the afternoon class of bright kids. I’d reach for a concept past what they read and… “This is like this,” I’d say. “What in today’s news is similar to the causal-correlation dichotomy?” Nothing clicks. You can hear it, you know, the clicks in their minds. A sudden bright look, a shuffling as one sits up and listens. Planted that seed. Fertile soil.

We’ll return to the basics, then. I resist the urge to parse each lesson for next term and guide students to a greater understanding. Begin at the beginning, a few writing exercises.  Describe an object, place it in context, then add an emotive response. Now begin a narrative, and–

Except they have read nothing.  What can they possibly have to say?

Some students in the First Year Writing Program are commerce or biology majors. The required writing classes are their only post-high school exposure to literature. So all their lives they’ll think literature is about dumpster diving and odes to oranges. No purloined letter, no Mayor of Casterbridge, no quote the raven. No Cannery Row. No Heart of Darkness. I can recommend they rent the movies, I guess.

And what about today’s world? As adults in the global village, who will they face? What to do when Castro dies? What about modern-day piracy on the high seas, or soccer wars in the Middle East? Twisted angry young people with machine guns and improvised explosive devises who know what they want. 

Why can’t I just teach the students what they need? What they actually need. Scare them a little. Maybe shake them out of their harsh judgments on thin evidence and poor reasoning and into a sense of the cost of liberty, need for vigilance, and duties of the informed citizen. All dirty words, I know.

Okay, next chapter in the new textbook. Let’s see… Oh, yeah. Susan Sontag’s On Photography; that’ll shape their minds.

No comments:

Post a Comment