I thought she was going to cry.
"But what's wrong with it? Don't you think it's poetic?"
"Read it again."
"As I struggled to regain my footing on the mountainside, I felt the eternal footman reaching out his grim hand."
"Um," I said, looking around the room, hoping to shift the blame. "Would someone like to explain to Rebecca why I thought that line was, um, less successful than it could have been?"
Sensing a Teachable Moment, I said, "Perhaps now is a good time to talk about something called purple prose."
"You hate it don't you."
"I don't hate it. I just thought the rest of the paragraph was so perfectly well-written that the line stood out as merely adequate."
Am I good or what?
"You wrote 'Okay, J. Alfred, cool it down' in the margin. And what does ICK mean?"
Fortunately, she did not burst into tears or run screaming from the room. But for the rest of the workshop she sat listlessly. Oh, no, I thought, I've broken her dear little heart.
I didn't always have the courage to write ICK on a student's paper. Or BLAH, or BLECH, or BS. Still nursing a grudge against the current-traditional tyrants I suffered through in high school, and inspired by the example of a mad Hungarian poet of the expressivist school I met in college, I was determined to be a Good-Hearted Professor. No one-comma-splice-equals-an-F-never-mind-not-bothering-to-explain-what-a-comma-splice-is-or-how-to-fix-it for me, oh no. I would be nurturing. Caring. Supportive. A kindly mentor. A guide by the side. Alan Alda and Phil Donahue would duel to the death to play me in the movie of my life.
Alas, nurturing and caring weren't going over very well. Kindness they read as weakness. The more thoughtful suggestions I wrote, the less revising they did. Thinking perhaps that no one had ever bothered to explain to my students the discourse conventions of teacher comments, I distributed a glossary:
When I say. . .
"You might want to consider. . ."
"This could be stronger. . ."
"While I appreciate your enthusiasm. . .
It's a rant.
At this point, my desire to Empower Students through Better Writing came up against my desire to empower myself through decent course evaluations. Why struggle to challenge students if they would only resent you for your efforts or accuse you of unjust standards? "But it's not fair. The average student can't get an A." Well, yes, uh, that's because an average grade would be . . . oh what's the use. I soon learned that the more I slacked, the more I was loved, and the better my evaluations.
The trouble was, I didn't want to be loved, not exactly. Mark Edmundson writes of the "encroaching self-dislike" he gets whenever a student claims to have "enjoyed" his class (40). In "The Rhetorical Stance," Wayne Booth warns against entertainment as an antidote to pedantry. And the Dao teaches us while it is better to be loved than feared, the true leader is neither feared nor loved, but is one of whom the people say, "Look what we did by ourselves!"
For a time, I continued to stumble along the way.
And then I met Dr. E. Six-foot-two, with iron-grey eyes, razor-cut hair, and a mouth and manner to match, he was, quite simply, the anti-Elbow. If you saw him on the street and were asked to guess his profession, you'd hit Marine Drill Sergeant or High School Football Coach long before you got to ex-Catholic priest turned medievalist. Rumor had it that during the inquiry into his sudden departure from the order back in the sixties, he had successfully out-argued three separate Papal Inquisitors. Apparently, he had never technically taken his vow of obedience.
I was assigned to be his TA for World Literature Survey. On the first day of class he declared that, as nothing worth reading had been written since 1600, the class would only cover readings up to that date. I was charmed. We read Plato. The Sundiata. Islamic travelogues. Tamil poetry. The Pillow Book. Dante. "This is multiculturalism," he'd declare. "Fuck that crap they teach you in the English Department."
His approach to grading papers was even more direct. During our first session, as I struggled to line edit and make Thoughtful Comments, E. breezed through his stack. "Here let me help you," he finally said, drawing a big red X across the page I was grading and writing "BS" in the margins.
"Can you do that?"
"It was bullshit, wasn't it?"
"Well, yes, but—"
"There you go. They can always revise if they like."
Naturally, his students loved him. Naturally he had tenure. Tenuous as my own authority was, I was determined to adopt his approach, thinking that, at the very least, students would appreciate my honesty. To my store of AWKs and VAGUEs and WDYs, I added an arsenal of UGHs and ICKs and BSs and BLAHs. Big guns. Heavy metal. God it felt good.
And I found that, for the most part, students did appreciate my honesty, and that it improved their own.
"Yeah, I guess Dorothy and her ruby slippers is kind of a cliché. I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I just put it in so I could move on."
"Can't argue with that, I do it myself. Just fix it for the next draft."
And yet, I remain afraid of going too far. So many students confess to me that for the first time they are enjoying an English class that I fear crushing their spirits. And too many students write on their evaluations that they value the class, but that "the professor can be intimidating."
Intimidating? I let them call me Dave!
Part of the dilemma is cultural. I teach in a Southern state, primarily Baptist, and largely rural. While our population is diverse, our flagship university is predominantly middle-class and white. Not a problem, middle-class white kids need good learnin' too. But homogeneity breeds complacency. Few of my students have had occasion to have their worldview challenged. And they shy away from conflict.
Not that I hold with contemporary critics of Today's Youth. My students are neither hedonists, nor aimless relativists, nor victims of a cool consumer culture. My first Jesus-is-a-role-model definitional paper disabused me of that notion.
But they are polite. Too polite. They frighten me. Which is only fair, I suppose, because my loud-mouthed East-Coast Jewish-Italian Talmudic-Socratic interactive teaching style scares the shit out of them.
So I try to explain myself. The socio-cultural and ethno-historic implications of argument as a performative act. The etymology of the word professor. The roots of the German research model. The university as a liminal space. The value of the Socratic method. All capped off by a rousing quote from historian Eugene Genovese: "Any professor who, subject to the restraint of common sense and common decency, does not seize every opportunity to offend the sensibilities of his students is insulting and cheating them, and is no college professor at all" (34).
Okay, show of hands, who agrees? One. . . two. . . five. . . everyone? Great! SO WHAT ARE YOU COMPLAINING ABOUT?
At night I light candles to bad-ass professors of the past, hoping that someday I will have the guts to be as tough as they. The legendary gentleman at Columbia whose final exam consisted of only two questions: "Which of the texts we read this semester did you dislike the most? What character flaw does it point to in you?" Shakespearean Maynard Mack at Yale, who once gently crucified a student for miscopying a quote. "Mr. Rierson [. . .] Transcribing quotations correctly is the most mechanical of tasks, requiring minimal intelligence. If a writer can't be trusted with so mechanical a task, what can he be trusted with?" John Trimble, who witnessed the event, writes, "that little incident taught me more of lasting value than many entire courses" (101).
My current hero is Melvin Tolson. Known today primarily as a modernist poet, Tolson for years led the debate team at Wiley College, a small, black liberal arts school in rural East Texas. Listen to him berate a student for failing to define a simple vocabulary item.
Jones, Jones! I'm so glad you came to this university! I'm so glad you're in my class! What if you'd gone to some other college and revealed all that compounded ignorance! Girls, take a good look at this poor boy from the backwoods. Don't you marry him or the one just like him sitting next to you. You wait till you get your degree. [. . .] Now Jones, explain to the class how it's possible for a student to live eighteen years, spend twelve of them in an educational institution, and arrive at college so completely uninformed about the English language. (Flasch 37)
Now that's teaching. Is it any surprise that his team once beat the then-defending champions USC, and Oxford?
Unfortunately, to be this sort of professor takes more diligence than I can muster. I'm far too absent-minded and laissez-faire. I haven't mastered the withering look. I have shown up to class, sockless, on a cold winter's day, and when asked why by one of my students, instead of proffering said look or initiating a conversation on boundary issues, confessed to them the whole pitiful story about being out of clean socks and meaning to stop off at the Gap on the way to class but forgetting that I had to make photocopies for them and why are you so concerned with my wardrobe anyway?
"I was worried you might be cold."
What can you say to that? I'm a softie, and they know it. Being exacting of their prose is the only way I know to keep them in line. If they ever suspected how much I loved them, how much I wanted them to find their voice, to realize that, cheesy as it sounds, everyone does indeed have a Story to Tell and that learning how to tell that story well is a worthwhile endeavor, I wouldn't stand a chance.
As I write this, I have just come from the "slam" tables at school, where students offer their insights on which professors to take in the coming semester. The discourse ranges from idle gossip to star-struck praise to outright slander—it's witty, banal, self-righteous, insightful, thoroughly obnoxious, and deeply passionate and honest in a way that we only wish their classroom writing could be.
This year I am pleased to notice that someone has written "If you want your writing to improve and you are not a wuss, take David Gold." This pleases me, and not merely because it represents an improvement on last year (Take Gold, he's funny), nor because it necessarily accurately represents who I am as a teacher (Can I really improve students' writing? Am I really especially effective with students who aren't wusses?), but because it fairly and I think attractively sums up an ethos I would like to project as a teacher. Smart. Engaged. Useful. Tough But Fair.
Alas, smart engaged useful and tough but fair don't always cut it. I recently had the opportunity to cover a class for Dr. L. Competent, charming, caring, engaging, energetic, she is widely loved by her students and a many a grad student's model for what a professor should be. Naturally, her students this semester were dead wood. Couldn't have opened their mouths with a crowbar. When I mentioned my experience to a colleague, she said to me, "You know, in a weird way that makes me feel better. If even L can have a useless class, than maybe I'm not such a bad teacher." And then she thought for a moment and said, "On the other hand, that makes me feel worse, knowing that the apathy is so widespread."
So it is. And I can live with it. After all, part of our job is to engage students (or find a way to inspire them to engage themselves). And as English and Rhetoric and Humanities instructors, we do have an obligation to "sell" the value of what we do to our students.
But we can't reach everybody. Not every student will engage. Not every student in college is prepared for or desires to be in college. At least not our particular college. At least not yet. My own institution, a highly regarded flagship university, has a near 40% attrition rate. And those who are perfectly competent students may very well be taking our class only because it is "a requirement [they] have to get out of the way before [they] can take the classes that will get [them] a real job."
And while we admit this freely amongst ourselves, we are much more hesitant to commit such feelings to paper. Instead, we get hero narratives, which are all very well and good, but some days you just don't feel like a hero. What does Peter Elbow do with students who don't want to express themselves? What does Mike Rose do with students who, despite your counseling, insist on following rigid rules? And seem to like them?
What I'd like to see are more narratives of failure, more narratives that not only address the give and take of the classroom, but acknowledge its occasional one-sidedness, such as Robert Brooke's "Underlife and Writing Instruction" or Jennie Nelson's "This Was an Easy Assignment."
One of my favorite style guides is David Williams' Sin Boldly. Not only does he offer insightful writing advice, but he writes with refreshing honesty:
I used to be one of those teachers who require their students to tell the truth, to speak in their most honest voice, to say what they really believed about the subject under consideration and give not a whit about what they thought I wanted them to think. It became apparent, however, that in saying all this, important and true as it was, I was burdening them with the additional responsibility of trying to figure out who they were and what they believed before they could even begin to write the simplest sophomore paper. To make the resolution of the adolescent identity crisis a prerequisite for writing a simple term paper is indeed to throw an all but insurmountable obstacle into the path of the earnest undergraduate. (36)
Snide? Certainly. Sarcastic? Quite. Dead on accurate? Absolutely. And what makes Williams so wonderful is that he takes this potentially snide and sarcastic insight and turns it into a teachable moment. He recognizes that some students are "unable to write a word because they haven't the vaguest idea [. . .] what they are 'supposed' to say [. . .] or want to say," and further acknowledges that this is no cause for shame. The solution he advocates is one any rhetorician would be proud of: "fake" a voice (36).
I am not suggesting that the agonistic voice is the only one worth faking in the classroom. (It works for me, but then again I don't have to go very far to fake it.) But I am suggesting that we explore alternative models for constructing our teacherly ethos, at least publicly. Cause sometimes these work too.
Remember Rebecca, the student whose spirit I crushed at the beginning of this essay? All day long I felt terrible. That evening I received an email from her: "MY PATHETIC EXCUSE FOR A PAPER."
I hit the open button and cringed. Here it comes. This time, Dave, you've gone too far.
I slowly opened one eye, and squinting, started to read.
"David, It's really good to have someone who will tell you when you are full of shit. Here I was thinking that I was going to impress you with that eternal footman thing, and you saw right through it. I wasn't coming from the heart in that moment, and you nailed it. I guess that there is a fear that writing from my heart isn't good enough so I feel like I have to intellectualize my stories. Thanks for keeping me honest."
Same to you, kid. Same to you.
Booth, Wayne. "The Rhetorical Stance." 1963. Rpt. Contemporary Rhetoric: A Conceptual Background with Readings. Ed. W. Ross Winterowd. New York: Harcourt, 1975. 70-78.
Brooke, Robert. "Underlife and Writing Instruction." College Composition and Communication 38.2 (1987): 141-53.
Edmundson, Mark. "On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students." Harper's (September 1997): 39-49.
Flasch, Joy. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Genovese, Eugene. Review of Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. The New Republic (April 15, 1991): 30-35.
Nelson, Jennie. "This Was an Easy Assignment: Examining How Students Interpret Academic Writing Tasks." Research in the Teaching of English 24.4 (1990): 362-96.
Trimble, John. Writing with Style. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Williams, David. Sin Boldly. Cambridge: Perseus, 2000.