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.
A first principle. There are several reasons for reading "professional" essays in a composition class (see that earlier post
again), but learning about the history of the essay form is not one of
them (hence we will omit, probably, Montaigne, Lamb, Emerson, and
How will these essays be delivered to students? (Which seems like a final question, but actually has bearing on which essays will be available.) Listing the options leads me to consider advantages and disadvantages of each, with the handy side effect, as I do this, of selecting and ranking a set of criteria (getting a little far into Abstract-land here, sorry...)
- Traditional textbook. This seems to be the first option considered by most instructors, esp. early on in their careers or later on, when they've stopped caring so much (oh, maybe that's not quite fair...). I've used several, and they do have their advantages: convenience certainly for both teacher and student; the one-stop shopping alternative that can combine rhetoric with reader with grammar/style info; another teacher's voice to supplement yr own, valuable either if the author's approach matches yours or for alternate POVs as well. For me lately, though, the disadvantages usually win out (though I have decided this semester to use an old standard, Donald Murray's Write to Learn, for reasons I'll explain in another post). Most of these texts are just too much: too much information that students won't read, too many essays to use within four semesters, let alone one (handy, though, in departments where texts are mandated, to give individual instructors some options); and too much money.
- Mass market (or tradebook) anthology. The big advantage here is cost-savings, $15 to $20 vs. maybe $60 to $80 for a conventional textbook. (Of course, you get just the essays, no rhetoric, pep talk on the writing process, suggested assignments, and so forth.) Options include the annual Best American Essay series, John D'Agata's The Next American Essay (admittedly out of reach for most of my students), other thematic collections from Graywolf Press (such as Mark Doty's Open House: Writers Redefine Home or Gerald Early's Body Language: Writers on Sport), Camille Peri and Kate Moses's Mothers Who Think, or numerous other collections you might trip over in yr weekly bookstore visits (or is that just me?). For theme-based classes, of course, such collections may be ideal. If yr course is not theme-based, there may be the problem of monotony. And for any comp class (and for collections thematic or not) there may be issues of readability and length of selections.
- Single-author essay collection. (Some personal favorites are listed below.) The cost-advantage over textbooks applies here as well, but there may be issues of variety of subject and/or style and readability. For an advanced class, it might be an idea to try several from quite different authors??
- Instructor-designed custom reader. Faced, I suppose, with complaints about the cost of traditional textbooks, many publishers have started offering these pick-and-choose readers. Instructors can design their own reader by drawing from a database of essays and other (mostly) process-oriented instruction, often with the option of adding a certain percentage of their own materials such as syllabi or assignments; publishers, in addition, may offer to contact writers/copyright holders to obtain permission to include other materials, essays, etc. that the instructor may wish to add. On paper, this sounds to me like a good option, but I have not tried it yet. I'm not sure what the cost of such readers would run. (For more info: Pearson has the Mercury Reader and Bedford/St. Martin's Bedford Select. The Writing Center at Texas A & M provides some additional links as well as some warnings.)
- Internet articles via hyperlink. No/low cost is obviously an important plus here. Whether I use CMS or some other kind of online course space (blog, wiki, etc.), it's also convenient for me to post links in assignments. (Students, however, don't always seem to appreciate this; I've had considerable trouble with students not remembering to print out articles or the old my-printer-is-broken-out-of-ink stories.) Without officially surveying the issue, it seems as if more and more high-quality publications are putting at least part of their content available online--The American Scholar, for example, now posts a few essays online. Using online articles also gives a high degree of flexibility midstream (to assign particular articles in response to issues raised in class discussion, for example). Another bonus, I hope, is that students may be more willing to actively annotate computer print-outs as opposed to textbooks (though I did catch one student right under my nose, vigorously underlining in a library book I'd taken out for her).
- Electronic reserves via college library. I'm not sure if this service is universally available, but my college library's circulation staff can scan in Xeroxes of essays to make pdf files that are then available to students through electronic reserves. Some students have a hard time figuring out how to access this, esp. if I am using WebCT also. But there are many advantages: virtually any essay can be assigned; if you don't use essays over and over again, this system is more properly in line with copyright law (as far as my understanding goes, anyway); students have print-outs, which encourages annotation. Only a few English instructors at my college use this however, which surprises me.
Some favorite authors and essays: establishing criteria by induction. (I have to leave off three of my favorites here--Guy Davenport, William Gass, and Cynthia Ozick--because their choice of subject and/or stylistic ornamentation are probably not freshman-friendly; the ones I include here are authors whose essay collections are represented in my personal library.)
- Roger Angell (Some lovely essays in Let Me Finish; the one that stuck with me was "Here Below," on visiting his mother and Step-father E. B. White's graves)
- Nicolson Baker (Many of his essays per se are not-so-approachable for freshmen, but I often read a few excerpts from one of his novels, often The Mezzanine; he has some wonderful disquisitions on staplers, shoe laces, and the switch from paper to plastic straws--lessons in paying attention.)
- Bill Bryson
- Joan Didion
- Annie Dillard
- Anne Fadiman
- Malcolm Gladwell (Most of his New Yorker essays available here.)
- Adam Gopnik (Two essays I'm particularly fond of, both from The New Yorker and both included in Best American Essays volumes: "Bumping into Mr. Ravioli" and "Death of a Fish")
- Sue Hubbell ("The Great American Pie Expedition" in Far-Flung Hubbell)
- Barbara Kingsolver ("Lily's Chickens")
- Carolyn Knapp (From The Merry Recluse, "Satan Deals the Cards," on addiction to computer solitaire)
- Barry Lopez (Nice essays in About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory: "A Passage of the Hands" sticks with me.)
- John McPhee
- Susan Orlean (From The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup, "The American Male, Age Ten"; many of her essays show how subjects the reader may have little initial interest in--taxidermy conventions, professional origami-artists--can be made fascinating through specific detail, another important lesson.)
- Henry Petroski (From Small Things Considered, "Design out of a Paper Bag," about the design of the paper grocery bag and its replacement in the mid-1970s by the plastic bag)
- Michael Pollan (I've used excerpts from The Botany of Desire for summary exercises; many of his articles are available here.)
- David Sedaris (The hilarious "SantaLand Diaries" was the first thing I read by him; most everything is entertaining, useful in class maybe mostly in excerpts of descriptions to look at detail and word choice.)
- Scott Russell Sanders ("The Inheritance of Tools")
- Lewis Thomas
- Sarah Vowell
Essay selection criteria.
- Practical concerns. Essays should be accessible in terms of vocabulary, complexity, allusions (though not without challenges) and not so long as to be formidable.
- Teachability issues. For me these seem to center on the following:
- Essays in which the everyday is made strange/new/different (Lesson: Subjects are everywhere.)
- Essays that include substantial, rich detail (Lesson: Pay attention to the world. Or details can make the most unpromising subject fascinating.)
- Essays that appeal to my sense of style (Lesson: Every word or syntactical move is a choice. Consider other options.)
- The X factor. An embarrassingly large number of selections are made via whim and serendipity, suddenly apparent connections between two individual selections or coincidences in my "real life" making my choices seem inevitable. (I decided my lit class was destined to read Our Town upon seeing a quote from the play outside our local planetarium, and Cyrano de Bergerac when I spied Steve Martin's "remake" Roxanne for sale at the grocery store for $6.)
- TO DO list. I think I need to concentrate more on the provocative, essays that more actively engage students' emotions and intellects, essays that take strong stances or otherwise shake things up.
An assertion. FYC teachers need to throw away the essay canon and, through their own frequent reading and with their individual students' interests and backgrounds in mind, compile their own, constantly shifting essay/article collections.
Some online suggestions. Arts & Letters Daily is a great place to start, with its often-quirky daily finds and its invaluable list of links to a wide variety of online periodicals. In particular, I've found some fine essays at The New Atlantis and Orion magazine; other old standbys are Slate magazine, Salon, and the Utne Reader.
There's lots of wonderful stuff to be found in just a short amount of time. In just a few minutes browsing around last week, for example, I found a great set of short essays from this week's New Yorker on Family Dinners that would lead naturally into a quick writing assignment and on the In Character site just a title that seems resonant to me: Holly Lebowitz Ross's "You'd Better Not Lie: How Honesty and Belief Collide in the Santa Claus Myth" (that magazine generally seems as if it might spark some good writing, with issues on abstractions such as Thrift, Purpose, Creativity, Loyalty, Justice, and Self-reliance).
Collect up yr own list of places to look. (And if you have some good ones, please feel free to post them below!!)