If, in your writing classes, you consciously strive for a sense of community and in some sense co-create an environment of exploration and discovery, the whole “culture of the classroom,” its function as a social space and event, also transmogrifies, almost without your knowing it. For example, the “filters” on student response become less restrictive, so that students will end up saying things that they might hold back were they a few years older or were they passive students in a more standard monologic course. (When I taught in Gdansk, Poland, I had to do a “monologic” lecture. This involved my presenting, via lecture, a book I had been working on for four years. The students listened politely.) But I am looking for a pedagogy that differs from the “monologic” one, namely one that doesn’t make me into a zombie and my students into creatures that long for night.
What sometimes happens once the students feel free to talk, to share their thoughts and feelings, though, is a little scary. So in conjunction with the students in your class, you might sometimes find yourself engaged in what’s sometimes called “values clarification,” namely offering commentary on underlying moral principles when that seems important or necessary. You might say, oh, this makes for lively and engaged discussion, which is true, but sometimes what emerges is a bit scary. For example, once in a class I was teaching a male student said something like the following: “Oh, it’s OK to beat your woman every now and then. That’s the only way they’ll keep in line.” He was serious. Now, admittedly, this had some connection to the literature we were reading (a short story by Zora Neale Hurston), but I felt it necessary to stop the flow of the class and challenge this assertion, to point out that what that student asserted was simply wrong. I said this: “Let’s stop class right now. This is no longer the class. This is life, now. OK.” (Pause) What John offered here is flat out wrong. It is wrong. You should never beat your spouse, your children, your friends, family, or anyone else for that matter. Never.”
Why mention this now? When we teach the skills of writing, rhetoric, and argumentation, when we turn our students into confident and skilful users of language, and when we provide them an audience, we greatly empower them. This is what Ira Shor calls “soft power”—that is, not guns or tanks or the like—but it’s power just the same. So what I’m thinking right now is that in providing our students with a genuine (albeit soft) power, we must also try to make sure they use that power in a positive way—or at least in a way that I myself see as positive. But I suppose opinions as to what’s positive will inevitably vary somewhat. One trouble with the imaginative-argumentative stance, which requires that one see conflicting, even marginalized viewpoints, and which gives considerable authority to those opposing positions, might be that we can’t really teach “goodness”; we can’t really teach values that transcend those of logic, organization, presentation, persuasion. Or can we? I guess what I’m saying is that the community course organization forces us to think about trying.
If students are being taught to “imagine themselves into” the opposing side’s ideas, how do they handle the challenge of imagining themselves into the position of advocating wife abuse? What if the student had been advocating the value of murder, rape, genocide? (This is not entirely rhetorical, since I did teach for two years in state and federal prisons, and oftentimes inmates would write about their crimes.) It seems to me that this is where the classroom as community comes most strongly into play. Where people are surrounded by a diverse community, especially, they tend to moderate their responses. They try, for the most part, to function as part of that community, just as they strive to be an independent voice within it. In the case of my student who advocated wife-abuse, the community of the class might well “talk him out of” this position without making him feel like a freak or monster. By contrast, were you as a teacher to go it alone, to offer “values clarification” in a monologic classroom, the student might end up feeling ostracized and, even worse, might cling to his initial position. Also, the student would probably despise you.
Throughout, though, the classroom space itself has to flex, has to be able to mold itself under the pressures of external importunacies and also those of the particular text or assignment. Sometimes a class might start with a brief lecture or could generate from a pointed and important question a student raises at the outset. There might follow a conversation about grammatical issues, if that’s what students really want (and surprisingly often, they do). Often, students bring up language-related questions that emerge in their other classes. For example, in a recent freshman writing course I taught, a student asked me, “My philosophy professor said there’s a difference between ‘John will go to the party if Mary goes’ and ‘John will go to the party only if Mary goes,’ but I can’t see it. Could you explain?” Yes, there’s a difference: good question. Let’s explore what the “only if” implies about John. (The “only if” sentence implies, I think, that John will find out beforehand if Mary is going before he himself decides to go.) So while I always have a lesson plan, I am willing to deviate from it or even abandon it if the occasion warrants. I think it might be possible that the best portions of classes I’ve ever taught have been the spontaneous, unplanned ones that come out nowhere but the very moment itself.
It also seems to me crucial to get students writing in class. I regularly use Peter Elbow’s “freewriting” techniques, which provide for students the opportunity to write as a way to learn, as a way to struggle with ideas they hold but that are not fully formed until their birth on the page. Such a pedagogy more strongly establishes a community within a classroom, where students and teacher read their work aloud to a live audience. Handily, freewrites give even the shyest student a script, and these freewrites are not just “talking points,” either—they need to be read in full, with no disclaimers, no quick summaries of what was said or what should have been said. Thus they can be proto-versions of what might be incorporated into papers. As students write to learn, as they come to be aware of a community they are part of, too, they also recognize that very often their writing can be exciting and creative, that it need not just be a rote following of an academic formula, like the-five paragraph essay, for example, or even the standard intro-body-conclusion form.
The tricky balances—between process and product, between creativity and logic, between academic convention and unique form, between formal English and the argot—are all difficult to maintain, but they’re worth maintaining. My teaching philosophy firmly rests on such shaky teetering. Sometimes it collapses: that’s OK. If there’s never any danger of falling, never any risks taken, never any more than just a transmission of received ideas to willing but somewhat flattened-back ears—why, how is that class any better than watching tapes of superstar professors giving superbly-honed lectures to students 3,000 miles away?
A recent issue of Apology carried a piece by Rivka Galchen that reprinted four or five “beginnings” of short stories that the writer had to abandon. In an introduction to them, Galchen speculates why she did not finish these stories: “They didn’t,” she writes, “go anywhere foreign or unexpected.” I use her words when I ask students to begin a class by writing a “private freewrite” (i.e., one not to be publicly shared). I say, “Write without taking your pen from the page. Write about anything—your morning, your day, your parents, your classes, this class, this room, the desk you’re sitting it—and stop when you come to some place foreign or unexpected.” They don’t fully understand this, so I talk about Galchen and explain that writing is a kind of “journey,” a journey into ideas, for sure, but also a journey into the self. Writing goes somewhere. This assignment also attempts to get students interested in going back to revisit their writing, to crawling about in that foreign or unexpected place, to resuming the trip, as it were. And it’s not a trip that emerges from taking a pill, I hasten to add, but a trip worth taking for its own sake.
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