There Can Only Be Five

Yesterday an MFA student considering a PhD in R/C asked me for a short list of articles to introduce her to R/C. She has been accepted to several strong programs, but is debating between pursuing R/C or Creative Writing Studies. I came up with a list of five:

  1. "The Politics of Historiography: Octalog"
  2. Hairston, Maxine. "The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing"
  3. Worsham, Lynn. "The Question Concerning Invention: Hermeneutics and the Genesis of Writing"
  4. Corder, Jim W. “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love”
  5. Yancey, Kathleen. "Writing in the 21st Century"

My idea was that articles 1 and 2 would give an idea of the goals, obligations, purposes of rhetoric/composition, article 3 provides an example of how critical theory can interrupt those goals, article 4 represents Burkian rhetoric and an engaged response to the cliched Platonic "rhetoric is unethical" argument, and article 5 suggests the directions the field will be attending to over the next decade.

So, how did I do? Anyone propose a swap? (Don't add anything without taking something out please). What are other people's lists for five significant essays to introduce someone to the scope of Rhetoric and Composition?

And, if I could add a sixth, it would be Jarratt's "The First Sophists and Feminism." But decisions had to be made.


Penny Arcade on DRM and Piracy

An outstanding post today over at Penny Arcade dealing with Ubisoft's most recent measure to combat piracy. Essentially, the game requires you to have constant access to the internet--any break in connectivity, and "poof" you lose all your progress. I spend quite a bit of coin on a top of the line Verizon connection, and I can say that my connectivity is in constant flux. I can't imagine a real world scenario where this kind of DRM isn't going to drive someone batshit crazy. As PA's Tycho comments, it will fail fast and hard.

But I really recommend Tycho's post today precisely because it points to the need for cooperation, and not competition, between the two sides (publishers and pirates). Publishers have to recognize, as mxrk indicated a long time ago, that most people are willing to pay for a product so long as it is convenient and the price is reasonable. And pirates have to realize that continually justifying the outright theft of property will undermine any validity to their initial objections (accessibility, owner's rights to transfer and duplicate, time displacement, fair pricing). If things continue to escalate, then, as Tycho writes, "nobody wins."


Lanham on Style

Here's some brief snippets from Richard Lanham's 1974 Style: An Anti-Textbook. 30 years old, Lanham's scathing assessment on the academic and public valuing of prose style perhaps rings more true today than at the time of its publication (during the "birth" of R/C). I say "perhaps" because, as Lanham's more recent publications suggest, the development of new media and digital communication suggest possibilities for reinvesting a wider interest in elements of style. Reconfiguration generates new ways of seeing [appreciating].

On Why Freshman Composition courses are destined to fail:

The usual Freshman Composition course takes as its subject something called (old-fashion) Rhetoric or (new-fashion) Basic Communication Skills. New or old, it is basically the medieval trivium, or first arts course, a progress of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The medieval student spent all his time on these three until he got is B.A.. Students now get ten [or sixteen] weeks. (10)

On a cultural aversion to revision/artistry as feminine or superficial [irony alert]:

Only a child would do this. What's the point in spending a lot of time prettying things up? The thought is what counts. Style is for English teachers and editors. To be interested in it, especially for a man, is like being interested in furnishing his house--women's work.

On the social criticism of writing, good and bad:

Good prose does not come from a one-time inoculation. It has to be sustained by the standards of a society, by that society's sense of style. It has to be encouraged, appreciated, rewarded. Its countervailing ugliness has to be mocked. None of this now happens in America.

I am thinking particularly of this last point after my upper-division writing classes' previous workshops. In short (and I have a post on this coming), I had the class look at the first sentences to all of the posts written during the previous week (about 40 in total). Out of the 40, I would say about 32 of them were terrible. And I told my students this explicitly--that I was holding the first sentences workshop because these sentences were terrible. One student, a budding future English teacher, suggested that this was not good pedagogical practice (as did one of my colleagues). But I am calling Lanham to my defense--don't I, as a writing instructor--have to blame as well as praise? Doesn't my honest assessment lend more value to my feedback? Because I can say that, after the workshop, the amended first sentences I saw displayed far more sophistication. (Here again I nod to my own personal pedagogical narrative, my ties to Dr. David Zern's emphasis on disequilibrium culled from Freudian psychoanalysis-- although this time I am clearly back in the mode of making my students uncomfortable).

On another note, more and more watching Project Runway influences my teaching persona.


First Sentences

My two writing classes today were focused on writing first sentences. I compiled a few resources to provide lens' for examining all the first sentences they had written the previous week. From an article over at A Tate Publishing Blog, I pulled three criteria:

  • excite a reader's curiosity, particularly about a character or relationship
  • introduce a setting
  • lend resonance to a story

These criteria are the goals for an effective first paragraph, but I think any of them additionally apply to a first sentence. With my class, I broke setting down into three more distinct notions: time, place, and mood [which I discussed in a Heideggerian sense as our "being-in-the-world"]. The post then gives two questions to ask of a first sentence:

  • Does it convey an interesting personality or an action that we want to know more about?
  • Can you make it more intriguing by introducing something unusual, something shocking perhaps, something will surprise the reader?

Given my favorable disposition to Peter Brooks' psychoanalytic treatment of hermeneutics, I chose to boil that second question down to "suspense": does the first sentence pose a question we want answered?

From a creative writing handbook, I pulled two more criteria for evaluating good sentences:

  • Flashes a picture in your mind, using concrete details
  • Puts you right in the middle of something happening

Finally, I read the short article Killing the Babies and Captivating First Sentences" over at footnoteMaven with the class. I liked this article not only for its title, but also for its pragmatic advice. When revising, fM focuses on identifying the most compelling sentence in a piece, and then finds a way to "rock" that piece up to the very beginning of a document.

For non-academic writing instructors out there, this makes for an excellent exercise. Come to class with a document that contains every first sentence your students have written for a particular project. Have the students select their three favorites from the list; additionally, have them mark off the three sentences that need the most work. After tallying results, have students apply fM's theory to whichever piece of writing received the most critical votes--can they, looking through the entire paper, find a compelling sentence that could be crafted into a more engaging opening? And, then, can they use this principle on their own writing?

A brief survey of the results showed the answers to such questions as positive. And, of course, I hope the critical attention such an activity fosters is applied to every sentence they write.


Facing Myself

Casey posted a response to my post yesterday to Facebook. I ripped out a rather long reply, but Facebook is having difficulties. So (sorry Casey), I'll just move the conversation here. Casey responded to yesterday's post with:

Santos: I've been thinking on a related subject lately: is it worthwhile to "theorize" in this aristocratic way? Should we have a pedagogy for the in-crowd? A curriculum for those who "get it?" An academy of saints?

And prospectively, what is the point?... presumably, those who "get it" already get it. They don't need Nietzsche. It's like education only works for those who "enjoy critical questioning," but those who DON'T enjoy critical questioning cannot be educated.

So that they have ears but cannot hear, or whatever.

To address the questions in order:

  1. For me, yes.
  2. I think you are confusing pedagogy [how we teach] and curriculum [what we teach]. Still, the answer is yes [to the curricular decision to teach Nietzsche]. So, too, there is an aristocratic current to my pedagogy: because what makes them the in-crowd is the ability, desire, and commitment to ask themselves questions. Those people belong in Asimov's House of the Feebleminded. And that "aristocratic" curriculum opens avenues for thinking new questions. Of course, in place of aristocratic, I would prefer meritocratic--where my subject criteria for "higher" study is a display of interest in actually exploring something new to the student (whatever that is).
  3. Deification is of course an issue. As is aristocracy-oligarchy.
  4. The problem might be the very attempt to articulate A point for education. We offer educations. For some, there is no desire for critical questioning of any kind (and I don't mean this term tersely as politics, religion, economics, etc. I mean they don't want to ask any kind of question that broaches upon the metaphysical, aesthetic, or ethical). I feel part of our obligation--as individual teachers, departments, disciplines, institutions--involves approaching these subjects. But we cannot force them. That said, we can identify the students who have an interest in these subjects and questions (what makes Def Poetry powerful is one question an undergrad accounting student is exploring this semester, I've asked her to juxtapose def poetic performance against Pinsky's theory of poetic sound). And I don't accept this presupposition that they transcendentally "get" "it." Either get or it. Not automatically. So, essentially, as much as I might not like it, there is something of Republic VII showing up here--although my attitude (I hope) is markedly different than Plato's. Its not a manner of pulling people out of the cave, as much as a matter of recognizing who wants to do something different, and providing an opportunity. And then finding a way to "educate" those who are not interested in [post]Human questioning in such a matter that does not force me to compromise my principles [in this case, that education has to involve self-direction, imagination, and--usually--discomfort].

I hope I am not too critical here--but Casey's questions hit home for someone who has both my interest in critical theory and progressive visions for education and my devotion (and, yes, Casey, I mean that in terms of deification) to Levinas' prioritization of ethics as first philosophy. I have started to ask myself how different our institutions would look, our classrooms, our office hours, if instead of a fundamental turn toward either Kantian understanding, Hegelian synthesis, or Heideggerian questioning we turned to Levinas' obligation to the other. All the time. An unrelenting responsibility to listen rather than speak. It makes me uncomfortable at times. But, as I indicated above, and old professor of mine (Dr. David Zern) once told me that unless someone is uncomfortable, they are not learning (he was a Freudian--and a very smart man; you'd like him Casey, he argues for notions of universal justice). I realize only know--years later--that the one I should have been making uncomfortable was not the student.

It was me.

And, Casey, I needed to engage Levinas--to question him--in order to have him question me.


Maniacal Laughter

I've always really liked the title to Davis' work Breaking Up [at] Totality for its playfulness and visual pun (follow the link to see the cover). Of course, I also enjoy the Gorgian-Cixiousian sentiment of the book: laughing in the face of the world's [in]sanity. I have a student reading Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals this semester, and so I am reading it as well. I like to think of Davis' title along side Nietzsche's clear description of his "gay science":

For cheerfulness--or in my own language gay science--is a reward: the reward of a long, brave, industrious, and subterranean seriousness, of which, to be sure, not everyone is capable.

Those of us who enjoy critical questioning (whether in the tradition of American novelists or French theorists or Buddhist spiritualists or Greek sophists, Casey?) know that not everyone enjoys cracking up [social institutions, traditional ideas of morality, progressive visions, ideological assurances, cultural predilections, the self]. Not everyone sees deconstruction as positively as Nietzsche frames it in the opening aphorisms of his Genealogy: as opening the (re)inventive possibility.