“Dear Students,” Teaching as Relationship

School of Athens

I’m on dangerous ground here. What I’m about to share with you should inspire stern rebukes from many people. I invite this. Please do share your opinions about what I’m doing in my classroom. I hold to no ideologies about myself or my teaching and I’m always ready to revisit my methods and theories. Comment freely below and let me know how wrong or right I am, because I am surely both, simultaneously. In short, spank me if I deserve it (and no, that’s not meant to be dirty).

I was recently inspired by a Slate piece that looked at an assignment prompt Kurt Vonnegut used in a class once. I’m obviously no Vonnegut (insert predictable “so it goes” comment here). However, I love the idea of treating students as if we are in a relationship with them. I don’t conceive of education as merely information transmission. I like to think of it as an energetic, unpredictable mix of sharing, mentoring, and mean-spirited badgering. All because we love our students so dearly, and we want them to become something better than they are. Raphael’s great masterwork “The School of Athens” is perhaps to blame for my delusion, but it is my inspiration to do my work and to get better at it. It shows students and teachers talking, discussing, and even fighting. In short, it imagines education as a human relationship. The letter, as a replacement for the authoritative assignment prompt, is a genre that speaks to this relationship more productively, I believe.

So I gave it a shot. I have yet to see the final versions of this paper, so this may have turned out to be a narcissistic, brutal failure. I can, however, say that each day students come into my class to run their ideas by me. Not their semi-colons or run-on sentences, but their ideas. This is heavenly for me. So, here is the prompt in its entirety for your judgment. One thing: I must credit my own friend and mentor, Rob Spadoni, for some of the language in this prompt. Hey, if you can’t improve on something, just steal it, right?

Anyway, be brutal. I’ll thank you for it.

Dear Students,

To help you gain experience in writing research papers for college, we are going to undertake four major assignments this semester. Each task is meant to help you focus on a specific aspect of thoughtful research writing.

For this first task, which will be worth 10% of your course grade, you will write a literary analysis. I know that this seems like a specifically “Englishy” thing to have you do, and that you may not immediately see how it is relevant to the math, science, psychology, and business papers in your exciting futures. I just ask that you please trust me on this one.

I’m having you write about a short story because I want you to focus on something complex and outside yourselves. You are all very good at writing about yourselves and your opinions. Now I’d like to encourage you to push yourselves and apply that skill to the larger world. This will be a struggle for you; I don’t want it to be easy. I want you to exercise your minds through the practice of engaging with great literature.

Here is the assignment in a nutshell: Pick one short story from this list to write about:

“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Jewbird” by Bernard Malamud

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

It is to your benefit to read each of these stories before deciding. There may be questions about any or all of them on the final exam, and experiencing each for yourself will greatly increase the chances of finding one you’re truly interested in. So read broadly before making your selection.

You will need a thesis to argue in this paper. Read your story more than once, several times is ideal. Take notes as you read. After time, your own unique perspective and ideas will start to emerge. This will be the material that your argument rises out of. Your notes will also serve as a kind of working outline for convincing your reader that your thesis is both original and plausible.

Use the terminology we’ve learned in the course. The DiYanni reading should help you ground your arguments in concrete, formal specifics. Talk specifically about things like plot, structure, character, setting, point of view, style, irony, symbols, and theme. But – and this is important, so please pay attention to this – do not make your paper a list of identifications of this or that element. That will bore me to tears and I will have to give you a low grade for doing so. Instead, draw on your originality and ideas. Each of you has something special and interesting to say about any number of things. Organize your analysis of the elements of fiction around your thesis and argument. That will impress me and make the whole process more pleasurable for you as well.

If you’re nervous about this undertaking, there is a sample in the DiYanni reading that might give you an idea of what a finished product might look like.

Finally, since this is a research class, I would like you to include at least two sources in your paper. You practiced quotation integration a bit last semester, so draw on that experience. Wikipedia is an alright place to start, but do not cite from it. It might provide you will other resources that are acceptable, but it is not a legitimate source in and of itself. Your quotations should be from reputable sources like academic journals or books. We have many of these in our wonderful library, so use them, not Sparknotes. In fact, avoid Sparknotes at all costs. I want this to be your own original thinking and relying on this second-hand smoke is cancerous to your own process of discovery. I will deduct heavily if it becomes apparent that you’ve incorporated Sparknotes or anything like it into your work, so don’t even look at it.

Please don’t hesitate to ask questions, in class or in my office, about anything in this assignment or the Checklist for Essay Writers.

Good luck, everyone. I really do want this to be a fun assignment and my rules are meant to make it so. Go forth.

Your professor

An eminent professor of English has written an insightful defense of majoring in English on a CNN blog today. I’ve never tried this “Reblog” thing before, but I found the ideas to be worth spreading. Essentially, English as a discipline needs to think about ways to make a larger contribution to the culture. The professionalization of the discipline has been destructive on many levels, one of which is our self-imposed exile from the worlds of commerce and business. English majors, if encouraged to take their humanistic education outside the academy, could, I believe, make a major impact on the culture.

Re-Visiting Philip Roth at Christian Humanist.org!

Hello everyone. I just wanted to take a moment to extend my hopes that we all had a terrific holiday season.

I will very soon be publishing a post about my amazing trip to Lego Land in Florida, but first want to point interested parties to another blog that I will occasionally be posting to. I have decided to use the moment of Philip Roth’s retirement to re-read the novels in order and post my reflections on my friend and colleague’s blog, Christian Humanist.org.

The first one is up. It’s about Goodbye, Columbus. Please check it out!