I have been gestating a post (for not quite nine months) based on two things I read at the beginning of the year: Paul Heilker's essay "Twenty Years In: An Essay in Two Parts" in the December 2006 issue of CCC and an essay by Donovan Hohn in the January 2007 issue of Harper's titled "Moby-Duck." I was especially happy to see Heilker's name in the CCC TOC. Though I've never met or communicated with him, I felt a personal connection of a sort: he had (unbeknownst to him) stood as an ally in my disastrous (in the mealy-mouthed Ivory-Tower sort of sense of the word) attempt to overthrow thesis-driven writing. Or at least to open up a dialogue, to question its bullying domination of FYC in my department, to argue for a more inclusive, baggier sort of definition of what we were looking for in the freshman "essay."
It was about four years ago, and I was still relatively new to the dept. I had been doing freelance editing at home for nearly fifteen years and was thrilled to be back in the middle of (what was to me a rather horrifying term but a welcome idea) the "academic discourse community." After a meeting in which one faculty member seemed to claim that the thesis was the sine qua non of FYC, I'd sketched out a tentative position paper, just a couple of pages long, arguing, in essence, that writing could be exploratory as well as argumentative. (The disastrous part involves that faculty member's response: my memo described as an "unsubstantiated diatribe" and my behavior as "totally lacking in professionalism and collegiality.") In my note I quoted from Heilker's book The Essay: Theory and Pedagogy for an Active Form:
Heilker starts this new article with an explanation of the four stages he went through, over a sixteen-year period, in trying to characterize and define the essay: first seeing the essay "as an antigenre, as a place where anything goes"; then adopting the binary view of "exploratory and expository discourse as polarized, antipathetic, and mutually exclusive entities," featuring a list of oppositions (private vs public, experiment vs procedure, discontinuity vs coherence, and so forth); then suffering a period of confusion because so many of the essays he actually read seemed neither pure essay nor pure article, but some hybrid form; and finally positing that essay and article were endpoints of an idealized spectrum. From this last position he writes
(My chief complaint about the article--I'm not sure whether to call it an essay--is with this first section. I find the patchwork of quotes that he uses to "support" his evolving understanding of the essay unconvincing and irritating. Pages are peppered with "I read," "I learned," "I was told that," "I heard that," and this reliance on "experts" rather than his own reading of essays runs counter both to my natural inclinations and to the essayistic sensibility I'd wish him to have.)
The fact that Heilker's process of coming to understand the essay took so long raises an obvious question (for him and the reader): if it took him so long to get to this point, is it fair or useful or desirable for us to expect our freshman students to follow along the same developmental path in just (maybe) one semester? How far will the less sophisticated among them get, and (maybe more important a question) how frustrated? How can/should we assess their progress?
The most interesting part of the article, for me, was Heilker's defense and rationale (I'm doing a little rearranging and regrouping here):
Advantages from teacher's POV. Heilker is disarmingly honest about what he, as a teacher, hopes to get from this essayistic approach: more interesting things to read. I can relate. It was initially my boredom with car accidents and dying grandmothers that sent me searching for other approaches (beyond the rhetorical modes I started with in the 1980s). But it is not merely his own enjoyment he is seeking; his (maybe) idealistic desire "to be an ardent reader of [his] students' work, not merely a grader" (197) would seem to benefit students as well. He also claims that, because the author is "more present" in the essay, essay-writing affords him "better and richer contact with the people in [his] classes" (198).
- Increasing students' pleasure in writing process/product. Essay-writing, in Heilker's view, allows the writer room for more passionate expression and possibilities for integrating feeling with logic. Students are more likely to write on subjects they care about, increasing the chances they will produce "something that might last, that might have meaning and life outside the course requirements, even outside the university experience" (202) and giving them perhaps a sense of the intrinsic satisfactions of writing. In addition to delight in the product, students may come to experience pleasure in the process of meaning-making.In reflecting on her essay about a washer and dryer, one of my students wrote: "I knew there was something significant about the subject, but I wasn't yet sure what it was. After I had thought it through several times I went ahead and wrote my first draft. By that point, I had a fair grasp on what the washer/dryer meant to me (a status or security symbol) but I wasn't sure of what the conclusion or importance was. It really wasn't until after several more read-throughs and revision of the body, that I finally had a sense of what the conclusion really was (that I had the symbol without having really earned it). Now that I see writing as a process of exploring a subject and sort of thinking about it on paper, leading to understanding the topic instead of just reporting on it, I find it much more enjoyable."
One of the most satisfying comments I've ever had from a student!
- What is college-level writing? There's the argument to be made that this essayism is fine and dandy, but what our students really need is to be able to write serviceable, competent, mechanically correct prose. I understand this argument: I learned grammar in middle school; I diagrammed sentences; when I taught as a graduate assistant in the early 80s, we were required to flunk any essay that had more than three major usage errors (comma splice, fragment, homonym error, pronoun or verb agreement)--under those guidelines 95% of the essays I grade today would be F's, many on the basis of the first paragraph alone. Heilker argues that if our students have not learned competence by now, more of the same will not help. His view: I have pushed for a strong definition to rescue the essay from the years of association students have with school-based writing--to divorce the essay from the themes, formula, correctness, punishment, and drudgery that still seems to characterize expository writing instruction for too many students and teachers. I want students to regain some of the joy and play with their writing, agency, and ownership over their writing[...]College-level writing courses should, it seems to me, slow down the process of composition; complicate it; cordon off the easier softer way, make students work harder, work fundamentally differently than they did in secondary school.[...]the essay shakes students awake, forces them out of their somnambulant approach to composition classes.(201-02)
- Intellectual development beyond competence. First, Heilker writes about increasing students' self-knowledge:I think we have come to see the essay as a powerful vehicle for examining the social construction of one's self.[...]Indeed, I think that students' identities are the most important texts they will ever read and write; that the exploring, composing, and expressing of their selves is the most important act of interpretation and writing they will ever undertake; and that the essay is a far better vehicle for this work than exposition.[...]Who better than us to help students compose and revise the discursive artifact of selfhood?(200)
Another equally important development he expresses in terms of tone ("I want more gentleness in student writing, fewer sledgehammers, more intimacy, fewer pronouncements"), but tone reflects here a much deeper development, a growing awareness of complexity and ambiguity that seems to me at the heart of the intellectual growth I'd like to see in my students (and in some of my colleagues as well).
Another point that particularly interested me is how Heilker frames the personal vs political dichotomy (which I considered in an earlier post
About the time I read Heilker's article, I also came across Donovan Hohn's essay "Moby-Duck or, The Synthetic Wilderness of Childhood" (accessible online for Harper's subscribers, as is the entire 157-year archive of the magazine, a real bargain at $27 for two years, btw!). Just as I suggested Heilker might more usefully read essays than criticism, so I'd like to try to draw a few extrapolations from Hohn's wonderful essay. (If it's not included in the next Best American Essays collection, I'll eat my hat.)
The essay begins with a very specific event:
That is, a container filled with bath toys slid off the deck of a ship, releasing the menageries into the North Pacific waters.
One layer of the essay, then, is Hohn-as-journalist, writing about this event, how its location was pinpointed and its meaning for the beachcombers who discovered the toys and the oceanographers who used that data to better understand the ocean's drift currents (culminating in his own trip to tramp the Alaskan beaches). Beyond that, though, the essay wonderfully weaves together a constellation of concerns: the environmental hazards of plastic, the animal in art history, Hohn's own impending fatherhood, the natural vs the synthetic, childhood as a modern invention (featuring a critique of Ernie's rubber duckie: "so synthetic, so lonely, so imaginary, so clean" (55)).
An occupational hazard of mine, of course, is that much of the time when I read I'm scouring for classroom material (the New Yorker for style exercises or paragraph development. Time and Newsweek and the daily newspaper for research paper topics), so I started wondering whether this essay would be useful to appropriate. I would love to have students who would love an essay like this. But I'm afraid that I do not, that this essay is too long and complicated for most of them (though I think of what Bartholomae and Petrosky ask of students in Ways of Reading and their insistence that students be given difficult texts to work with...I don't know).
At any rate, for now what I'd like to do is distill the aspects and tactics of Hohn's essay that I might be able to use with my students:
find a place to start (nugget, kernel, germ) I'm interested in how this essay starts from a narrative nugget (or almost just the image of those ducks etc. bobbing on the seawater). Is it possible to help students find/recognize such fertile bits? What are the characteristics of promising essay-germs/seeds (pick yr metaphor of growth)? I think that maybe too many students start too large--their hometown, high school graduation, abortion. Maybe I could collect up some possibilities, but certainly it would be better if they could start to do their own "beachcombing." I've tried this before with limited success, though, bringing in stacks of magazines for them to surf through (for research paper topics, in particular)...
combine personal experience with research Hohn's essay is a prime example of Heilker's hybrid (where most real-life specimens exist, in both the natural and the literary worlds), combining elements of the private/personal and the public: from his description of a photograph of himself "naked, eight months old, sitting in the bath across from my brother [...] attempting to gnaw through my rubber duck's skull" (55) to research, for example, about Guangdong Province "where low-wage factory workers manufacture 70 percent of the toys we Americans buy--about $22 billion worth--71 percent of which are made of plastic" (62). I think this sort of connection between individual experience and something more public is an important kind of mean-making to encourage in my students. I may, for example, ask them to brainstorm a list of things/images/events from their own lives that connect to more broadly defined "themes." (Examples from my own life: my mother's memory lapses, teenage suicide, videogame addiction.) To judge from the personal essays I have read, many of my students would have personal connections to such issues as teen pregnancy, abuse of various sorts, the criminal justice system, failing educational systems, the immigrant experience, outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, and some more cheery topics as well, I hope. Locating these possibilities should help increase students' engagement with writing topics as well as give them practice in making personal connections to subject matter a valuable skill for other classes they may be taking. I might then ask them to research some related kernel-possibilities (again, not quite sure how to do this or where I would send them). We'd want to practice a lot of moving back and forth, from personal memory to researched fact, from specific-detail-heavy description to focusing abstraction.
think it through Hohn's essay is a wonderful demonstration of the "mind at work," turning over this plastic duck to study its various angles, exploring its associations, milking out its meanings. I'd like to encourage my students to see their subjects from such multiple perspectives, to work through such layers of meaning. I'd like to see my students thinking on the page, not half-asleep spooling out some argument they knew before they started. Heilker writes in his article that "Discourse forms enact values" (205), and those are the values I'd like to transmit.
Finally, from Hohn now, a lovely essayistic metaphor (or so I'll choose to take it):
No matter how crappy a pittance the tide leaves, no matter how darkly ominous the riddles in the sand, beachcombing has its delights. There is pleasure in setting your senses loose. At the sight of something half-buried, the eye startles and the imagination leaps.[...]Then, at the moment of recognition, there is a kind of satisfying latch. The silver flame? An empty bag of Doritos, torn open. The small sun? A red, dog-chewn Frisbee. The strange becomes suddenly familiar once again, though never quite as familiar as before.