Social Class Reproduction

Four Rules for Teaching Writing:
Image result for image: joy of writing
Always give writing assignments that

1. you will enjoy reading;
2. students will enjoy writing;
3. students will enjoy reading what others in the class have written
4. you will enjoy writing.

If any one of these conditions were not true, then it probably wasn't a very good assignment.

Advice I give to my students: When your words surprise you, you know you are writing.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Distance between Writer and Reader

My friend Carra constantly sends me things she thinks I should read. I know she’s trying to educate me, and that’s all right. A few days ago, she linked me to Virginia Woolf’s review,  “The Modern Essay.”  I’ll admit, I scanned it.  I had an initial response that was different from Carra’s. I’m not arguing here against Carra’s—that would be surprisingly stupid. But I am using this incident as a way of saying something about the teaching of writing.
What a lovely piece of writing.  Perhaps a bit overwritten. I wonder whether other readers sensed just a bit too much time spent on getting the right word, image, phrase, and rhythm (a shade ironic, given her objects of disaffection)? But I was reading closely enough to catch that she marked Max Beerbohm, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Walter Pater, as writers who managed through their writing to diminish the distance between themselves and their readers. Admittedly, Woolf’s examples of meaningless paragraphs may have been overweighted to ridicule overly-distanced discourse; nevertheless, Woolf makes her point: good writing diminishes the space between writers and readers. Bad writing is distorted by intermediating personas.
I am thinking about what this notion of distance has to do with how we teach writing in required writing classes.  The distance between writers and reader is possibly in indirect proportion to one’s pleasure in writing and consequently related to the kinds of writing situations we construct in required writing classes. It's not too difficult to imagine why when we read so much of our students' writing that we complain, a complaint that is perhaps misdirected.   
I have had the good sense before publishing this post to reread Woolf's essay--and I have to thank Carra for sending me there--and wonder that I had never read it.  The first link below is to Woolf's paragraphs on Beerbohm--I want all of my student to read this.  The second is to the essay, which if you haven't read, take some time, give yourself pleasure and read it more slowly than I did at first. An essay like this makes you wish for all the time in the world only to read what gives you pleasure and as slowly as possibly and reread again.  I told Carra, I would hate to be on the receiving end of V.Woolf's sword.  I think Pope said something about true satire severing the head from the body and leaving the body standing.  Woolf leaves with few exceptions most bodies standing.
Links: Woolf on Beerbohm
            Woolf, The Modern Essay
            Beerbohm, A Cloud of Pinafores

#ipeckham #Virginia Woolf #The Modern Essay #personal writing

Friday, November 15, 2013

Having Fun Again

I'm just saying: what would happen if writing teachers at all levels (think Lucy Calkins) made as their primary objective having fun with writing (writing and reading)--and note (as you will if you read my students' writing) some of this can be hard fun. #ipeckham #personalwriting #funwriting

Rethinking Objectives

Two things of interest this morning: First is that I find it easier to write in here (i mean in this blog space) than I do in word, like in my diary, where I usually write something that I might paste somewhere in a more public forum.  I have no idea why this is so.

Second: I'm going to write something in here about personal writing and teaching every MWF (days when I'm not teaching)--and possibly SatSun, the days of reduced pressure.  This is a way of accumulating my thoughts about the subject, some of which will reappear in different forms when I write for publication.

I feel wonderful this morning for reasons I can't explain. It's a lovely day and I enjoyed yesterday with my students and reading their work.  There is of course more to feeling wonderful than that. But when we feel wonderful, we should in some way mark it down so that on other more gruesome days, we can go back and say--there, it was like that, and I will feel that again.

I am thinking a lot about the kind of writing my students are doing and how this kind of writing might or should fit into an undergraduate curriculum and even in required writing programs.  I think I"m going to stick with only one thought this morning--the degree to which we have skated over our students' (dis)affection for writing--and whether we should elevate affect in our objectives--like consider affect as a separate outcome in the WPA Writing Outcomes. I don't think in all of our discussions in the 90s that affect even came up as a topic. Others can correct me here.

The real issue is the degree to which we backpedal a bit on our focus of preparing our students for the writing situations they are likely to meet in other undergraduate courses, one of the two most often cited objectives in our required writing programs--the other being critical citizenship.  Most of us probably recognize that the Service/CC objectives frequently alienate students from the writing habit that as writers we claim to cherish.

If you've read this far, I encourage you to read some of the autobiographies, reflections, and essays on vulnerability students in my Life Writing class have written.

Links:  Life Writing Essays

#personalwriting2.blogspotcom #ipeckham #personalwriting #firstyearwriting #studentwriting

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Andean Flute

I have had a few difficult experiences in the past several days, not the least of which has been my ill-advised zinger on plagiarism on the WPA-l.  These experiences have been difficult to internalize, resort and rearrange so that I could come out on the other side, having learned something that would help me make more sense out of my life and the lives of those with whom I intersect.

Being the kind of writer I am, I make better sense out of events by writing about them.  Whether I let anyone see the process is in many ways the subject of this blog. I began this blog simply because I was asking my students to create blogs.  When I began, I was decidedly blog innocent.  I still am significantly innocent, but through the process of writing these posts, I have learned a good deal about writing, private and public discourse and the many areas in between, and I want to try to get down this morning something of what I am learning.  One would think I would have learned more, having been teaching and writing for more years than I care to mention, but people who know me well know I'm a slow learner. My wife, Sarah, used to console me by saying at least I learn.

I ask my Life Writing students to write personal essays that they are willing to let the other nine students in the class to read.  Some of these students have been willing to edit their essays and allow me to post links to them on this blog.  Needless to say, this kind of exercise is a natural reader-oriented activity, quite a bit better than "Imagine you are writing a letter to . . . ."

I have imagined my blogging as something of the same, although exaggerated by the number of unknown readers as a consequence of my attempt to gain some kind of readership by announcing on WPA-l and with Google+.  For several reasons, I wanted to engage in the same kind of writing I have been asking my students to do.  First, I like this kind of writing--it's how I figure myself out.  Well, I'll stop there. It's dangerous to try to figure yourself out in a public space. I did know it was dangerous, but I know I'm trying to discover for myself something about writing and being somewhere on the continuum from diary (absolutely private) to published book--large, unknown audience (this is all Moffett stuff).

Truthfully, I like the risk. I can't explain why, but I do. Actually, I do know why, now that I've thought about it, but I'm not going to explain it. Key is resistance to a kind of enforced sterility that characterizes most professional writing. I'm not all the much different than one of my students I quoted in my last post.

But I have gotten into trouble, and now I'm trying to work my way out of it.

About fifteen years ago, I published in an online journal an article documenting/interpreting the origins of the Conference on the Theatre and Pedagogy of the Oppressed (PTO), featuring the work of Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire.  I was one of the original organizers in about 1994 or so (it is still ongoing--this year's will be in Omaha, NE, the place of its origin.  In the article, I recounted several very difficult moments in the conference. I had occasion to reread this essay yesterday and I thought I would include here a couple of paragraphs near the end of the essay when I wrote about my decision to make public some of the problems that might have perhaps been left private, reminding me of one of my previous posts in which I wrote about crossing the line [the essay was called "The Flute"].

After multiple identity conflicts and role juggling, the advisory committee [I was a member] reconstructed itself and moved forward.  I would like to expose these conflicts because they reveal the underbelly of social relationships and the liberatory movement, but in any movement, as in any relationship, there are things one shouldn’t talk about because the public right to know conflicts with the individual’s right to privacy (a statement that is itself conflicted by the linguistic social construction of  “individual” and “public”).  There is a point at which one glosses over discomforting issues and gets on with the business of living.  Where we place that point defines us—as I have defined myself by telling you this story.

I know that in order to hear Paulo’s music through the cacophony, one has to see beyond; one has to focus not on individuals, not on class, race, or gender but on the contradictions within the system—and on the possibilities for action.  That’s what Paulo means by conscientizaçao.  I think that we also have to move beyond blame.  We have to stop blaming others and we have to stop blaming ourselves.  But it’s hard to remember that amidst the finger-pointing and shouting.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

DeZenning Zen

I spend most of my day writing or reading and thinking about writing.  I know I'm trying to reforge my identity by all the writing I do, constantly trying to write myself out of who I am and into a me somewhere else.  I know how unZen and uncool my stance is here, but it's me. It's possible of course that Zen is the flip side of what is commonly imagined.

I have a million things I want to say/write, but I've lost my voice tonight for reasons I could never explain here, all of them in a space that simply has to remain my own. I'm thinking about my students: how easily they can be shut down as I feel shut down tonight.  I'm thinking about the tender relationship between writing and self and how easily as teachers we can be oblivious to the almost supernatural link between who we are and what we write.  Teachers have commonly claimed they are critiquing the writing, not the writer.  One might say comically claimed.

Maybe I can let one of my students speak for me:

 I’m writing in the way I speak because essentially, that’s who I am. Sometimes, I wish I could send Standard English and grammar rules back to where they came from. My vendetta against those two are pretty intense mainly because they take away the one thing I should be able to show at my own discretion. My vulnerability is made candid because of the way I speak. My dialect, my disposition and the sass within my voice reveals so much about who I am. I hate that my flaws are exposed to the world when I “be talkin’.” No matter how hard I try to tell my story from a mainstream perspective, I always feel like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not. 

I'm wondering now what my first two paragraphs and my student's quote have to do with each other.  Probably nothing--self, writing, silence, being elsewhere, zen, ~zen.  Maybe I'll put the pieces together tomorrow.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Learning too much about each other

I'm not enjoying working on the article I have obligated myself to.  I find myself fighting forward, sentence by sentence and wondering how I got into this.  I have to kind of see it through--but I'm telling myself, I'll never do anything like this again.  I'll write only what I want to write--self-indulgent again.

Here's an interesting (to me) tangent.  (I just rethought--and decided not to write about that).

Here's a related one: it seems to me that a love relationship is perhaps the most important thing in most of our lives.  There are people (and I've been running into them) who want to pretend they can get along just fine without being in love.  To me, this is just crazy.  I know how important love is to me.  Because of their writing, I also know how important love is to most of my students.  I know they are seriously looking for life-partners.  We're kind of supposed to pretend that's not what we're doing, but that is what we're doing.  The other stuff we do--search for career and all that--lie on the periphery, but we're supposed to pretend that the periphery is center and the center the periphery.

The subject is a bit edgy.  I know that in my class, my students are reluctant to come out front with their desire, really, just to have someone to fully love who fully loves them.  It is of course worth asking (and I ask myself a lot) why I would want another love like this--after all, I'm not in the procreation game.  Across the decades, I know my students are asking themselves the same question.  When it hurts so much, who wants it?

I would like to leave this post here--but I have to remark on something else, just because I don't want to go back to that article.  Where is the line in this blog, which is really about personal writing, between my personal life and yours?  When I slip over that line, how and why will you be offended? How would I be offended if you let me know too much of you? And why?


I'm becoming more comfortable with simply writing something down here and in an uncritical moment, clicking on publish--of course I can think later and come back to delete a post, but if I've left it up for an hour or so, it may already have done its damage.  After a couple of conversations with forgiving friends who have been reading some of these posts, I have had to think about the self-indulgent character of blog writing, or at least my blog writing.

Carra stepped out a bit farther on the limb and noted that a good deal of my writing seemed self-indulgent--and I realize that right now, I am proving her point, writing about the writing life--as I see it.  I want in this post to reflect (there it is again) on two characteristics of personal writing and the kinds of writing my students do, particularly in Life Writing.  I think I first want to talk about my/our sense of readers, the readers in our heads and the readers who most definitely are not in our heads but who nevertheless stumble across our words and on occasion get back at us, letting us know they were, in fact, there.

When I'm writing in this blog, I have a sense of some of the people who might read these posts: several of my students because I usually let them know when I've made an entry (let's call this the rhetoric of enactment); many of my WPA friends, some of whom know what I went through two years ago (there's the self-indulgence in spades again); and some of my Facebook and Google+ friends, because I'm trying to promote this blog in both these venues (I'm going to try Twitter next).  And then there are some people who stumble across these posts and read them in any number of surprising ways, ways I could never have anticipated.

In our field, we generally emphasize to our students audience awareness--an emphasis Peter Elbow has at least partially challenged, noting that at times we need to be able to write without a sense of audience on our backs.  As a writing teacher, I have generally gone along with the audience-awareness trope, but my recent experiences have, at the least, complicated my sense of audience.  I know that when I am writing here, I am mostly trying to get down some thoughts about an issue, almost as if I were writing in my diary.  Getting the thoughts down is my priority--knowing I can always go back and get rid of deadwood and really stupid thoughts (assuming i can spot them).  But while I'm writing, I have a vague sense of some of my close friends who I think will be reading this--but it's as if I'm talking to them.  And then in the distant corners of my mind are memories of negative responses I've received about my writing over the years and a couple of negative responses to this blog.

To a certain extent, all the people who have responded to our writing/being in one way or another are on our backs as we write. I think the degree to which we can shake them off is some measure of our writerly self-indulgence.  And personally, I can say (Peter's point), the more I can shake this audience-burden, the more I enjoy writing.  I know that at times, I have to pay attention to audience (I'm trying to rewrite an article on the ecology of assessment right now--well, it's what I'm supposed to be doing, but I'm writing this instead, writing my way, if you will, into work).

I think I've worn this topic out.  I want to move from readers & self-indulgence to vulnerability and what my students are writing (and maybe, self-authored revision).  I'm going to try to make this quick; actually, the moves are obvious.  When writers self-indulge, they open themselves up.  And when we open ourselves up, we of course risk a lot, but we also open the door to other people, kind of like asking others into the party.  Some people are not going to have a good time, won't like the pictures on the wall and so on, but others will feel more or less at home.

That's not a very good metaphor--so let me try it this way.  In my Life Writing class, my students have really opened themselves up to each other.  Maybe rather than let people in, they have let themselves out--walked into the street and found a lot of other people like them, with the same problems, the same hurts, the same desires, the same fears.  Their words have helped them get out of their culturally imposed prisons (you are not supposed to go naked in public).  When my students discover commonality through their writing and when they write back to each other about these hurts and desires that we are taught we should keep under wraps, they discover writing.  It's not too hard to theorize how one can move from the self outward in this kind of writing (Chapter Two in Teaching the Universe of Discourse), but this post is already overly-long, and I really do need to be working on that article.

But a final word on revision.  You will see when my students give me all the links to their reflections on writing and vulnerability (you can see some of them by clicking on the Life Writing Autobiography page above) how they are paying attention to audience (the class as an audience and readers of this blog as a potential audience [and to a certain extent, me as an audience]) and both writing and revising with these different rhetorical situations fully in mind.  In my last class, to a person, they all said about my linking to their vulnerability essays, they wanted to look them over again first.

Ok--to the article. #personal writing #writing #writing for fun #vulnerability #Irvin Peckham #Peter Elbow #audience #self-indulgent writing

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Writers Workshop

I only want to start a post--my method of getting something down.  The overall theme of this blog is productive ways of helping students with their writing.  To help them with their writing, writing teachers need to challenge counter-productive strategies.

I've never been a fan of the Writer's Workshop (Iowa's--thank you, Maja) model, but I lately received from one of my students a reflection that cemented my disaffection.

Most of you probably know the model, but let me paraphrase:  two or three writers distribute their work for each class session.  Participants are to read the stories/poems/essays before hand and be ready with some hard-nose criticism.  I think perhaps one or two critics are to lead the charge.  Caveat: I have not participated in one, so my descriptions are hearsay--and somewhat common knowledge among those of us who have been in the business for a while.

I think that generally, readers are encouraged to be aggressive--not let anyone get away with shit.  The thesis behind the hard-nose criticism is that serious writers need steel-plated egos.  If you want to be a writer, get ready for rejection and ruthless criticism.  So the critics let go with their critiques while the writer has to sit on her hands, forbidden to speak (or defend or explain).  I think there might also be an unacknowledged showmanship at play here, a macho kind of thing--the critics displaying for the teacher (who has weathered the storm) how witty, incisive, and ruthless they can be.

If our purpose as writing teachers is to breed little Phillip Roths, this protocol might serve its purpose.  Weak writers aren't going to make it.  Only the strong will survive, arguably preserving the high quality of American literature.

And this is a load of crap, reifying a selfish, (Ayn/Paul) Randian genuflect to the capitalist enterprise under the guise of high art--as if art hasn't always been a means of justifying the status quo while pretending to critique it (with the field of art/literary critics doing their bit as cheerleaders).

I'm not going to argue my claim.  I really have little tolerance of people who like to advertise their aesthetic sensibility.  Their strategies for self-promotion are obvious--and obviously a consequence of an uncritical reading of capitalist culture that has made them pretend to critique what they really promote.

A counter-strategy--and the one I'm obviously promoting in this blog--is to imagine that all (or almost all) people can write things that others should read.  Consequently, our place as teachers is not to collude in sorting people out (in this case, on the basis of their "writing" ability) but rather to bring them in, do what we can to make as many people as we can fully enjoy the act of writing, of being, of communicating fully with others through writing (and more fully communicating with themselves).  We should search out any teaching strategy not predicated on making each person feel good about him or herself and her writing.  Within this kind of soft-minded (yes, and possibly feminist) pedagogy (we all know--the nurturing kind), there is room for helping writers move along, friends speaking to friends, saying something like, this sounds as if you said the same things twice--what would it be like if you cut this out & said it only once?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Citation Practices

I'm trying to think carefully about a friend's concerns of citation practices.  I have to confess that until she brought her concern to my attention, I hadn't thought about this issue.  My unconcern may very well be a consequence of my gender--and I think that's both obvious and possible.  Although I'm a working-class academic, I'm a male, and a white male at that.  When we belong to a privileged social group, we obviously try to hide that sense of privilege and disguise our accomplishments as meritocratic.

My friend has made me rethink citation practices.  If I get her argument, it's like this: citations count (duh--more obvious in the sciences than the humanities, but . . . ); there is some kind of editorial convention to encourage authors to privilege citations from  privileged people (mostly male) in the field, erasing citations of emerging scholars.

I suspect that such a practice operates on different levels within different disciplines.  But I also think that no matter what our area, there are some residual constructions that make us privilege conversations (citations) from some social groups over others.  all of this seems obvious, no matter how we try to describe it within the incredibly fallacious meritocratocracy frame.

I am only now thinking about citation.  I've generally ignored it--I've adhered to the conventions just to acknowledge where others have moved me in my thinking.  I realize mine is a radically circumscribed notion of citation others--a more expansive view is that you want to point readers to others who have done work in this area.  Then mixed in this--a notion that I have not thought of--is citing others on the basis of their importance in the field--i.e., one cites only the more important figures in order to link your thinking to theirs (ignoring the work of more recent and unacknowledged scholars).  Hmmmm.  I wonder about the degree to which this is the underlife of citation.  This may be a convention in the sciences.  I wonder about the degree to which that has leaked into our field.  And of course I wonder about the entire practice of citation.  This is just a note of wonder.  Maybe it's a question about the economy of citation--or about the construction of being cited, of being noticed, of being acknowledged.  And one always has to wonder about the link between how one is acknowledged and the social position one occupies--which I think is the question my friend has highlighted.   The real question here, I suppose, is the link between Capitalism and citation practices (and by Capitalism, I am referring to a system of maintaining unequal distributions of wealth, privilege, and status).  Late night wandering of the mind, I suppose.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Space of Writing

Now this is interesting--to me at least: I just want to write a short blog entry today--nothing serious, and I found myself preferring to write in the blog space rather than in Word and subsequently cutting and pasting into the blog.  The choice has something to do with formality, revision, and spontaneity, and it taken far enough might have something to do with authenticity and personal writing.

In my Life Writing class, we always begin with about ten-fifteen minutes of writing in our personal diaries (I think I've said this in a previous posting).  We turn the lights down a bit and listen to music, like Gil Evans, while writing.  It's a quiet, lovely time, ten students (yes, small class) and me, going into our heads and writing about ourselves and our lives to ourselves, just figuring things out.

I had a lesson plan yesterday that quickly went awry.  The student who was supposed to give us our daily grammar lesson was missing, so we skipped that.  I had planned on having the students who hadn't yet posted their vulnerability essays upload them into the forum where we read one another's essays and then move on to our next personal essay--a good one that one of the students suggested (here it is, word for word as she suggested it:

Coming to terms with "reality". Eventually there comes a times when we realize that wanting to be the next Bill Gates or The president of United States takes a whole lot more than just saying so. How has the shock changed your perception on life as you've gotten older? Have there been any situations/life events that may have altered your "reality"? -The Success and/or Failure of relationships (love and/or platonic) & the lessons taken from them.)

Well, three or four students wanted to make a few more changes on their essays before they posted them, and none of us had finished reading all the new ones that had been posted, so some of us started reading and writing back to the newly posted essays while the others kept working on theirs.  Lights still low.  All of us reading on our laptops.  Gil Evans.

I finished reading and responding to two of them & looked up (we're all in a circle); everyone still reading and writing; period half over.  I mean seriously reading and writing.  I mentioned something about my plan to move to Sha'Myra's topic.  Everyone liked it, but they were busy reading and writing; they wanted to read what everyone had written, and that's what we did for the rest of the period--until the time came for our class journal--a place where I usually have them comment on what we did for the day, how the class is going, and where they would like it to go.

We usually have some very interesting discussions about writing and who we are and writing about who we are for some of the class period, but we didn't yesterday.  it was just into our laptops (even for the one student who RADICALLY prefers to write with a pen and read hard copy), Gil Evans playing.

I guess I'll just leave this entry here.  But not quite.  Their vulnerability essays are really interesting to read.   I hope they'll let me post links to them on this blog.  I'm really finding out what students can do when the teacher just basically gives them a space in which they explore with each other (and with me) their writing and who they are--with a little bit of organizing on my part.

These students are mostly juniors and seniors who signed up for this odd course because they like to write (not all of them are English majors).  I have my 7:30 morning English 2000 class with whom I am not terribly satisfied.  This is a required writing class.  I have about 12 out of 22 students who are there every day.  They are thoughtful students who are enjoying the freedom to write.  I have three or four more who get there most of the time.  And the rest, some of the time.  I'm thinking a lot about this class and the possible role of the professor.  And about grades.  And "rigor," tough-love kind of stuff.  And--I can't quite put my finger on it--but the relationship between my blaming some of them for being who they are as a way of avoiding blaming me for being who I am and that space between where no one is to blame for occupying the space s/he does in a cultural system into s/he was born.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Normally, I write off-line before I post something here.  Although it may not seem like it, I look at what I've written two or three times before I post it--taking words out and so on.  With this post, I'm more or less writing uncensored.  And that's dangerous business.  My students know it; I know it.

I really didn't like my last post because I didn't say what I really wanted to say.  I thought maybe it didn't fit--and besides, it was a little too private for a public audience.  And it also involves another person.  So what's at stake here is wildly interesting and complicated--the question of locus.  A blog is more or less a public space.  So how much of yourself  do you let hang out there?  I said in one of my previous posts that vulnerability isn't an all-or-none dichotomy.  How much we let others know of our story (under some kind of vague assumption that our story is not only our story) is situated.  No--I'll never let it all hang out, certainly not in a public forum.  I'll tell more to my students, for instance, than i will to others in this space.  And I have some very close friends to whom I'll tell a lot more than that.

My students are placed in this same situation--they have to make decisions on precisely how much generally not-public information they can let go.  The situation is always complicated by the vulnerability-authenticity-interesting relationship.  When we say just what people would expect people to say, well, that's boring.  And I think that's what I said in my last post.  I was uneasy about going a little further and saying, I'm not alone anymore, which is probably obvious to any reader of these posts.  My story is really not about the astronaut who sailed off.  My story is about rescue and the importance of love.

There is some kind of relationship that I shouldn't be avoiding: a relationship between my students and the other students (and me) and between me and you.  Of course that's not a strict relationship, but it's not far off.


In the days of the early space explorations, I imagined the possibility of an astronaut being cut free from the mother ship (duh) by in improbable space particle zinging through the steel tether.  I know we have seen this in some movie (probably in Kubrick’s 2001): the jet pack fails to ignite and you see the astronaut floating off.

You might have a few hours before the carbon dioxide filter fails to operate, a few hours of drifting off.  That’s seriously alone, entirely disconnected.  I’ll leave you there, with your memory of things you have done, people you have known and loved, all of it on the beautiful earth below, while you drift off in space, the brilliance of the stars around you.

Since my wife died twenty-seven months ago, I have had to think carefully about being alone—although I would hardly call my first year of thinking careful.  My neighbor’s wife also died a few weeks ago.  She was 42.  I like Matt, so he has been on my mind. Knowing what he’s going through, I should go over to talk to him, but so far I haven’t.

Both of us know there is quite a difference between being alone and being lonely.  We had very strong marriages, which in an odd way, prepares the surviving spouse for the single life, protects him or her from loneliness.  But he or she is very much alone, not to the same degree as my imagined astronaut, but alone, the empty house, the empty bed, the solo meals.  After a while, you almost get used to it.  Some people even say they like it.

I generally enjoyed reading my students’ essays yesterday-the English 2000 students were writing about the significant changes there have or are experiencing in their lives; the Life Writing students were writing about being vulnerable in their lives and writing.  I was a little disappointed by some of the Engl 2000 students’ essays—many were a bit flat, one or two not very well written. This shouldn’t surprise me because I don’t grade them, have minimum word counts, or require reviews and rewrites.  I just have them write—kind of as I am doing here.  Mostly, I just give them the opportunity to write and be read. 

There were some good English 2000 essays, however.  I saw only two Life Writing essays, both of them striking.  I'm going to comment here on one—it was long, as if the student couldn’t stop writing until she had worked out through her writing this problem of being alone.  She is twenty-two and has never had a boyfriend.  She focused in her essay on dealing with that.  Her essay gripped me and it will anyone else who reads it—it was a serious meditation on the link between being vulnerable and being alone.  Like Matt and me, this student is not lonely; she has a loving family and a plethora of good friends.  Nevertheless, she wants a relationship, which puts her in the alone category.  Remarkable about her essay was both her insight and her willingness to come out there with her desire and self-questioning.  Most of us prefer to pose in the we’re-all-right-by-ourselves-don’t-need-anyone-else category.  I’ve done my share of posing there, too, although I know without a doubt that I’m hard-wired for love.

I think that for many reasons, most of us are looking for a life-partner, but for perhaps more reasons, the search too frequently leads to heartbreak and after a while, people begin to pull in on themselves.  It takes courage to stay out there—that was the point of Brene Brown’s TED talk and my student’s essay.  Courage to stay out there.  In writing, in love, both of which may be a symbol for everything else.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


I kind of have a break in my afternoon after having spent most of the day reading students' essays, one set on the changes they are now experiencing in their lives (English 2000), and another set on the relationship between vulnerability and writing for my Life Writing classes.  I'm also trying to get over a cold with the aid of thermalflu or something like that, which has made me a bit woozy, so who knows what I might write.

I was thinking with some surprise on the different interpretations of "Authenticity" that a close friend and I have.  I realize that as I think ahead of my words that I'm going to privilege my meaning, no matter how much I try to acknowledge meaning from a world quite different from mine.  My friend and I come from significantly different social classes, although there are points where our social class origins cross in odd ways.  I know I'm going to privilege my working-class social class origin, which shaped my understanding of "authentic" at the expense of her upper-middle-class origins and consequent different understanding of "authentic."  Until she wrote her post, I had privileged authenticity, perhaps as a consequence of my working-class origins (and there is a lot of research that links being out front with both working-class and upper-class realities).  But she  said that in her trajectory, she had learned to link authenticity to unschooled local color--authentic artists, with a bit of a sneer.

I could take this discussion into a social class discussion of the difference between seeming and being.  I could probably even link it to college education, the way in which we get students to seem at the expense of being--that is, unless they are by virtue of their social class born into the culture of seeming.  I might even tie this to rhetoric, the art of distancing yourself from your message by reshaping your message to fit the social situation.

I think I'll just leave the discussion here.  Our different interpretation of this seemingly innocent word could lead to trouble.  Misreading other words--and there are obviously many possibilities--could do the same.  Our only hope in this uncertain linguistic universe is to be alert, to watch for the signs of wrinkles in the linguistic fabric, remembering that our words are at best vague approximations of what we mean.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Writing that Reflects

Carra and I enjoy having our blogs intersect and play off each other. Rather than comment on my post, she’ll read what I write and then usually have a different way of looking at whatever my subject was, which, in turn, makes me review and adjust my thinking (and I’m hoping that what I write does the same for her).  We’re both writing about writing.  I’m more specifically writing about using personal writing in the classroom—because that’s what I’ve been doing lately—whereas she’s writing about a more general sense of writing in culture—and sometimes, just being in culture.  Nevertheless, our friendship and blogs move us a little bit beyond ourselves, as all good friendships and writing do.
Our latest intersections involved some of my casual claims about natural writing, placing it in opposition (following the tradition of Ken Macrorie) to school writing (by which I mean most school writing).  I didn’t know what I meant by natural writing, but she picked up on it and reframed it as authentic writing, including various takes on what people have meant by that phrase, ending with her own statement of what she means: 
                                                        writing I care about,
writing that grows out of me and my experience, and
writing that reflects the process of its composition.
Actually, she hedged on this—she described what it meant for her specifically within the frame of a multi-media poem she was creating.  I’m still not certain about what she meant by “writing that reflects the process of its composition”—but I’m imagining that it’s writing that is not overly polished—the reader can see, in the tradition of the essai, the writer working his or her way though to a thought or insight, like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, the form and function simultaneously developing rather than preconceived.
I have a place I’m going to in this post, but I know it only vaguely.  It has something to do with personal writing, authenticity, vulnerability, and love.  I know I want to bring these things together as well as have them play off against each other.  I want these fields of affect to in some way inform productive teaching strategies—which I know might be too much.  Let me see how far I can get with this.
I want to start with the kind of writing that comes naturally to me.  I am a diary addict, so that is the most natural—just me thinking to myself in words that slip through my fingers and onto the screen.  I have no audience (please don’t counter with notions of the other or later self).  I’m basically just organizing my life, my thoughts, sometimes my day.  Sometimes I’m whining, sometimes I’m just reciting a mantra—It will be all right, Irvin, just hold your breath.  In this kind of writing, I am not vulnerable; I don’t take risks; and I don’t censor (ok—there are a couple of things I have decided not to write down).  And love plays no part, other than I think I’m Ok—but I don’t love myself in the same way I love others.
I move outward to txts and emails to the people I love.  This is actually a fairly large group of people who are my family and have become very close friends over the years.  I love to write to these people.  I do a bit of censoring, depending on the features of the relationship, but I’m usually exchanging honest thoughts with this group.  I let them see me from the inside—and they do the same, which is why they are my friends.  When I’m writing to them, the words simply seem to come out of me, almost like when I’m writing in my diary.  This is clearly authentic/natural writing.  Vulnerability can come into play here, although not as much as with a more anonymous audience.  There are certain things that I will write to one member that I would not write to another.  I will write things to Carl, my friend of thirty years, that I won’t write to my son, Jesse, things that I write to Jesse, that I won’t write to my daughter, Heather. Because I know these people very well, I usually don’t have to think about what gets written to whom: it’s just part of the relationship, a part of our connection.  But there are times when I have to think about, should I tell her that or is it better to just be quiet?
I can see this post is getting too long—and I have to write an essay on vulnerability this afternoon (my students are writing one, and I always try to write what they write)—so I’m going to skip a few steps and get to the classroom (although I’m tempted to reflect on the what kind of writing this is—what risks I’m taking and how I have left myself open to readers I don’t know—that is, if anyone reads this).
In my Life Writing class, my students and I wrote brief autobiographies (which I will soon link to from this blog).  They didn’t know each other very well, but they knew the other students in the class would be reading them—and then in a further step, that I might open their autobiographies up to the world by linking to them from this blog.  Obviously, the risks and the possibilities of opening themselves up too much (making themselves overly vulnerable) were serious.  We had several discussions about how far they should go. What family issues and broken hearts would be better kept to themselves.  The flip side of the question is that the more you keep to yourself, the less interesting you are. The less likely anyone will be interested in reading you, the less likely you will be able to connect with others (see Brene Brown’s TED talk), and the less likely you are to connect with others, the more impoverished your life will be.  Still, there are limits.
I had an interesting example (I don’t know how much I’m going to tell you here).  I have my students write in online diaries in Moodle for the first ten minutes of each class.  I seriously want them to know what diary writing can do for them.  I can see their diary entries in a private forum, for which I give them credit, but I tell them, I’m not going to read them.  In order to equalize the writing game, I write a diary entry, too, which they can see if they choose, if you will, to peek.  During one of our how-far-do-we-go discussions, I told them about my entry for the day—a decision I made to only hint at something I had been worried about in my love life.  This was a just-in-case decision, I said, at which point, one of my students asked whether anyone had been reading my entries, and another student popped up and said,  “I always do.”
I hope you’ll get my point, as my students did.  The choice of how far to go is always rhetorical.  But it’s an important choice and in many ways determines the quality of your life. 
I suspect that if you read my students’ autobiographies and what they wrote about writing them that we might reasonably say their writing here has been natural, or authentic—although they certainly were circumspect about some of the things they decided not to reveal. 
After having done some research on the issue (like finding Brene Brown’s TED talk), my students are now writing essays on vulnerability (and I see I am about to complete mine).  Their essays will be a step away in the degree of naturalness from their autobiographies (they have been talking about this), but they have been eager to write them because they are trying to work out in their own minds something about being open to others, their writing being only a metaphor for who they are.  Most of the thoughts they gathered admit of no circumspection, like Hemingway’s: “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed”; or from Linda Joy Myers:  “I’ve often said to my students, ‘Writing a memoir is like taking your clothes off in public.’ True, but it doesn't go far enough. It's like taking your clothes off and reading your journal in public.”
Well, yes—and no.  There are limits—but the essential truth is there: natural/authentic writing comes from opening yourself up to others, to readers you know and ones you don’t.  The same is true with love and lovers.  You will have a rich relationship when you open yourself up to the other—but that’s risky.  We all know what I mean.  What if she doesn’t love you back as you love her?  I think in many ways, that’s the risk of being alive. 
We all liked Brene Brown’s TED talk—although I think we could complicate the issue by exploring how students with disabilities or disadvantaged social groups are made vulnerable by the structuring structures (Bourdieu) of school systems (see Denise Claire Batchelor, “Vulnerable Voices,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 38.6, 2006).  But here are two quotes from Brene Brown about courage (not exact quotes):
Courage is being the first to say, “I love you.”
Courage comes from cor—heart: to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.
What I have written here is close to natural writing, even by Carra’s definition.