Thursday, September 30, 2010


A Basic English story:

I'm holding conferences this week in Basic English. The assignment is pretty straightforward -- pick an advertisement from a magazine; identify the audience as specifically as possible; analyze how the ad's strategies and appeals work and why they're appropriate for that audience. You know, the sort of warm-up, learning-to-think-about-rhetoric assignment most instructors give in the first few weeks of freshman comp. In Basic, we spend most of the semester on it.

So, one of the students picks an ad from a parenting magazine. OK. In an effort to get her to define the audience more specifically than "parents," I pull up the magazine's web site on my computer. And we are in Glossy-Magazine-Land: a world where practically everyone is white; all parents are slim, good-looking, neatly attired thirtysomething professionals; and all the kids are clean and cute. Where parents spend hours making elaborate costumes for Halloween and fancy cakes for birthdays, and where they can have their pick of jobs at the 100 most family-friendly companies in America. You know, the world the media tells you is normal.

"OK, what sort of parents do you think would be most likely to read this magazine?"


"... What makes you say teenagers?"

"Well, lots of teenagers are having babies nowadays."

I don't know how to deal with moments like this. I think I would be able to find something to say to a student who was saddened or outraged or just plain bewildered at the gulf between Glossy-Magazine-Land and her own lived experience. I don't know what to say to one who is unconscious that the gulf exists. There is no decent way to point it out, for the truth is not decent. I think I floundered a little, pointed out that most teenagers are not looking for corporate jobs, evaded the real issue.

I have the knowledge to teach Shakespeare. I don't have the wisdom to teach Basic Comp.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

on misreading

This weekend, I'm grading a heap of poetry mini-papers from Brit Lit II. These are mercifully short, but incredibly labor-intensive, because it's a gen ed course and some of the students have no experience doing literary analysis. And, as is often the case in gen ed, I'm running into more than a few papers that seem to be based on fundamental misreadings of the text. Like, say, a paper about When We Two Parted written by a student who is under the impression that the speaker's ex-lover is dead rather than unfaithful. Or one about My Last Duchess where the student thinks the Duke is a really great guy who was deeply in love with his late wife.

Usually, these students are unfamiliar with figurative language and inexperienced at reading for detail and nuance; sometimes the problem is compounded by unfamiliar vocabulary and cultural references (one woman who was in my class a few years ago thought that Blake's The Chimney Sweeper was about a bat, because apparently it's a dialect term for a bat in these parts and she'd never, understandably, encountered an actual chimney sweeper). And I'm never sure what to do about it -- because I do want my gen ed students to recognize that literature lends itself to multiple interpretations, and I want them to have the courage of their own convictions instead of looking to me or for The One Right Answer, and swooping in to say "No, this interpretation is just plain wrong" doesn't seem to be the right way to go about it. And yet, some interpretations are just plain wrong.

Sigh. Back to grading.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Basic Comp: a somewhat uncharitable rant

So I seem to have become the Basic Comp person in my department, at least for the immediate future. I'm in two minds about this. In the spring semester it is not too burdensome, since the classes are tiny; it is actually more pleasant than teaching regular comp in the spring, when you get all the students who started off in Basic and all the ones who flunked last semester. So spring semester, OK. And I got lucky last semester, because one of my students (which is to say, 25% of the class) was really pretty awesome and a pleasure to have in class, and he was the sort of person who could actually benefit from Basic Comp, since he had simply been out of school for twenty years and needed a refresher. Returning students, fine. International students, probably fine, although I haven't had a chance to put this to the test, since they all seem to get placed in regular English 101.

But if English is your native language and you've just spent twelve years in school in the United States, and you still can't read, can't write, can't think, and don't have any real desire to acquire these skills, is one semester going to make a difference? Really?

I am trying not to think this way. I started off this semester resolved to treat my Basic students the way I wish my gym teachers had treated me (because I am SO not an athlete, and I was never able to pick up on the rules of games when the other kids seemed to absorb them by osmosis, so I do know what it's like to be forced to take a class where I felt hopelessly inept. And I can imagine how badly screwed I'd be in a society where all the good jobs were reserved for people with athletic ability.)

But, y'know, if I had to take a gym class, and I knew my ability to get a university degree was riding on whether I passed this class, and the teacher said, "Read this article on the Internet and print it off" several times, and the syllabus said the same thing, I think I would show up for class with a copy of the freakin' article. Which was more than FIFTEEN OUT OF EIGHTEEN students managed to do today.

I also think I would try not to FALL ASLEEP IN CLASS. (Here is where I wish I had the nerve to channel my long-tenured, Brooklyn-born, take-no-shit-from-anybody freshman Shakespeare prof, who once kicked a student out of class rather spectacularly for doing just that.) I mean, dude. That's just basic self-preservation, right there.

Twelve more weeks...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

random bullets o' back to school

... because I haven't got the energy for a proper post. Man, that first stack of grading is always a shock to the system.

-- I think I just volunteered to chair a Thing. I don't really want to chair this thing, but I was feeling guilty about my utter lack of scholarship, and I suppose I had a vague idea that I could swap it for some service. That was stupid. Stop me before I do it again.

-- My regular freshman comp students are a dream of a class, smart and skeptical and engaged. Basic Comp, not so much. (If I were in charge of the world, I think I would abolish Basic Comp and parcel out the low-scoring students among the other sections, with maybe some arrangement where they register for four credits instead of three, and get some extra tutoring and one-on-one time. Because honestly, I'm not sure the remedial classes are so much about teaching students as warehousing them, and when they're all warehoused together for most of their classes, they don't have anyone to model what being a well-prepared, engaged student looks like. And you know, maybe a few more of them will sink if we throw them straight into a real college class, but I bet some of them will find out they can swim, too.)

-- Writing this Kzoo abstract is making me feel stupid.

-- Teaching mostly makes me feel smart.

-- When the latest package arrives from Amazon, I will own five film versions of Hamlet. Should I get the Laurence Olivier boxed set and make it six? Probably not, as I'm not sure I like any Laurence Olivier Shakespeare movies other than King Lear, but on the other hand, I'm starting to feel like a collector.