In trying to decide which essays to use in my comp classes this semester, paging through the stacks of texts sent out by publishers, I was struck by an amazing coincidence: Why is it that, of all the narrative essays in the English-speaking world, George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" and E. B. White's "Once More to the Lake" show up over and over and over again? (Judy Brady's "I Need a Wife" seems to me somewhat over-represented as well as the proto-definition essay...) I pulled out White's essay for a closer look. Now, I know I'm supposed to revere him as a stylist (and I am fond of Charlotte's Web and Elements of Style), but that particular essay, for me, reeks of musty Reader's Digest condensed books and damp mass market mysteries, conjures the feel of scratchy blankets and two too-many days without a hot shower. So, rather than actually buckling down and committing to a half-dozen essays or so I'd use in my classes, I instead started one of my meta-musings about the process. I've written before about why to use reading of external texts in FYC; now I've been thinking more specifically about how I do (or should) choose the particular pieces I assign my students.
As I started in, thinking about why and why not for particular essays, I paired in my mind White's "Once More to the Lake" with another essay I'd assigned for a few semesters, then discarded, Michael Pollan's essay "Why Mow? The Case against Lawns." Why Pollan, and this essay in particular? Well, I own all four of his books (though I haven't had time to read The Omnivore's Dilemma yet); I admire his style; I'm interested in his subjects. Grass seemed to me initially a universal topic, and I'm partial to essays that invite the reader to take a new look at something he may have taken for granted. Though I've pushed a lawn mower only a few yards in my life (my parents expected me, as a girl, to do well in math and science, but lawn mowing and garbage disposing were not among my childhood chores), the subject evoked memories: running and scuffing my bare feet through newly cut grass as my father finished up his twilight mowing; the college bio-sci librarian in town who planted his lawn over to wildflowers, forcing his neighbors to examine the prejudices of their own lawn-aesthetic (nice in theory but not next to my shorn grass); my husband's childhood neighborhood, where grass measuring over 2.7 inches tall resulted in grumbling over the hedges and, in short order, the imposition of fines for civic irresponsibility. Beyond the personal resonances, I had things to say about the essay from a writing teacher perspective (notice his tactic with the lead, his seamless integration of sources, how the structure of his argument is built from blocks of description and narration and comparison/contrast). The thing that got me though, looking out at the faces of my actual students, many of them lower income, first generation American, first generation college students, was wondering how many of them had lawns or the experience of mowing lawns. I'm not sure how relevant that is or should be in choosing to discuss the essay (surely unfamiliarity alone is not sufficient grounds for excluding an essay from consideration), but the consciousness of class that the essay raised was uncomfortable for me. I'm still not quite sure what to do with those feelings, but for now I haven't been using that essay.