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Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

“Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities,” by Simon Perchik

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Essays, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Writing on December 30, 2015 at 8:45 am

Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik is an American poet with published work dating from the 1960s. Perchik worked as an attorney before his retirement in 1980. Educated at New York University, Perchik now resides in East Hampton, New York. Library Journal has referred to Perchik as “the most widely published unknown poet in America.” Best known for his highly personal, non-narrative style of poetry, Perchik’s work has appeared in numerous books, websites, and print magazines, including The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Poetry, The Nation, North American Review, Weave Magazine, Beloit, and CLUTCH.

Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple. There are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many.

It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers move back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.

Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader. To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction. Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.

This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. Thus, one of the many definitions of poetry might be: Poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated. To be made whole, to heal, the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning. It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.

This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.

To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated, disparate idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable one. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. (See Lawyer Poets And That World We Call Law, edited by James R. Elkins, Editor [Pleasure Boat Studio Press]; see also Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins [The Legal Studies Forum].)

The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, M.D., who, in Brain Storms: A Study of Human Spontaneity, writes:

If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.

Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, writes:

One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.

Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in The Lives of a Cell, describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known facts, he writes:

In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty. If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, 1 per cent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…

Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?

In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 a.m. I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.

For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:

Walker Evans     Farmer’s wife

Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth? Sorrow?

Not too bad looking. Plain dress

This description went on and on until I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled “On Various Words” from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:

Words — bricks and mortar

Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,

building the ant hill,

not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished

it’s too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.

This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the aforementioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.

Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.

No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.

Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract. Abstraction and music are soulmates and poetry is nothing if not music. For each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.

Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain until it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling,” with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.

Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.

Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it.

Book Note: Twentieth-Century English Literature, edited by Laura Marcus and Peter Nicholls (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Britain, British Literature, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, The Novel, Western Civilization, Writing on October 24, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following excerpt first appeared as part of the Routledge Annotated Bibliography of English Studies series.

This history of twentieth-century English literature addresses a wide variety of texts produced in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.  Made up of 44 critical essays, this book is divided into four parts: 1) Writing Modernity, 2) The Emerging Avant-Garde, 3) Modernism and its Aftermath, 1918-1945, and 4) Post-War Cultures, 1945-1970.  This division is meant to read like a history and not like a companion, anthology, or compilation of essays. 

The book attempts to avoid treating “Englishness” or “English literature” as fixed or essentialized categories and, instead, to use those loaded terms as illustrative of multiple and differing conceptions of place and identity.  As with any historical account of modernism, this book explores the tensions between continuity and change, but unlike many historical accounts of modernism, this book focuses largely upon transnationalism, diaspora, postcolonialism, and dispersal. 

In an effort to complicate simplistic characterizations of time and place, this book acknowledges overlapping chronologies even as it maps out a quasi-linear study of English literature in the twentieth-century.  As an example of the editors’ resistance against oversimplified periodization, the book begins not with a set date (say, 1900) but with a section of essays exploring the lives and works of authors both before and after the close of the nineteenth-century. 

This first section of the book (“Writing Modernism”) incorporates works about major themes in literature and the role those themes play in the gradual replacement and displacement of the literature of the so-called older generation.  The second section of the book also addresses the fledgling stages of modernism, considering as it does the divide between Edwardian and Georgian writers and literature.  This section closes with an account about how the Great War influenced literary production in Britain. 

Part three is, unlike the earlier sections, rooted in a particular time frame (1918-45), and it focuses on how authors such as Joyce, Woolf, Ford, Conrad, Lawrence, and Lewis experiment with forms while investigating their and their countries’ recent (and in some cases not-so-recent) past.  This section closes with World War Two and the literary productions emanating from that event. 

The fourth section, dealing chiefly with issues of continuity and change, also deals with issues of class, education, nationalism, and internationalism, and the fifth and final section, “Towards the Millennium,” examines literature and literary culture from the last 30 years.  This final section focuses on new opportunities for writing, publication, genre, performance, and experimentation.  It undertakes to explore the vexed “postmodern” signifier while refusing reductive conclusions about that term.   

In general, the book pays particular attention to genre and the construction and representation of literary culture during eras of new technology and shifting social circumstances.  When addressing more recent phenomena of literature and literary criticism, such as anxiety over the term “postmodern,” the book’s closing essays are careful not to “take sides,” so to speak, but to register the complexity of issues and insist that all claims about the contemporary or near-contemporary are provisional and not summative, speculative and not conclusive. 

This ambitious project leaves certain loose ends, as any project of this magnitude must, but it is nevertheless an impressive and meticulous contribution to ongoing and unsettled conversations about twentieth-century British literature.  The sheer number and variety of authors contributing to and represented by this text are so bold and interesting that definitive or comprehensive statements about them are difficult to make.  Suffice it to say that the complexity of this book, and of all of the authors and essays appearing in this book, is in keeping with the complexity of a subject as expansive as twentieth-century British literature.             

 

How I Taught Sustainability

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Emerson, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on January 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

Allen Mendenhall

Last spring I learned that I had been assigned to teach a freshman writing course on sustainability.  I don’t know much about sustainability, at least not in the currently popular sense of that term, and for many other reasons I was not thrilled about having to teach this course.  So I decided to put a spin on the subject.  What follows is an abridged version of my syllabus.  I owe more than a little gratitude to John Hasnas for the sections called “The Classroom Experience,” “Present and Prepared Policy,” and “Ground Rules for Discussion.”  He created these policies, and, with a few exceptions, the language from these policies is taken from a syllabus he provided during a workshop at a July 2011 Institute for Humane Studies conference on teaching and pedagogy.

Sustainability and American Communities

What is sustainability?  You have registered for this course about sustainability, so presumably you have some notion of what sustainability means.  The Oxford English Dictionary treats “sustainability” as a derivative of “sustainable,” which is defined as

  1. Capable of being borne or endured; supportable, bearable.
  2. Capable of being upheld or defended; maintainable.
  3. Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level.

Recently, though, sustainability has become associated with ecology and the environment.  The OED dates this development as beginning in 1980 and trending during the 1990s.  The OED also defines “sustainability” in the ecological context as follows: “Of, relating to, or designating forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.”  With this definition in mind, we will examine landmark American authors and texts and discuss their relationship to sustainability.  You will read William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others.  Our readings will address nature, community, place, stewardship, husbandry, and other concepts related to sustainability.  By the end of the course, you will have refined your understanding of sustainability through the study of literary texts. 

Course Objectives

I have designed this course to help you improve your reading, writing, and thinking skills.  In this course, you will learn to write prose for general, academic, and professional audiences.  ENGL 1120 is a writing course, not a lecture course.  Plan to work on your writing every night.  You will have writing assignments every week. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching Style

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on November 16, 2011 at 10:13 am

Allen Mendenhall

In his essay “Teaching Style: A Possible Anatomy,” Winston Weathers mentions a “definite exercise system” whereby students learn to mimic stylistic writing models.  This exercise recalls writing emulation activities that were popular in late 19th and early 20th century America.  Recently, I have conducted some “emulation exercises” in my classes. 

I had students compare Natalia Ginsburg’s “He and I” with the draft of an essay by Michael Blumenthal (whom I met during law school and who was kind enough to show my students what a professional writer’s “rough” draft looks like).  Then the students undertook an exercise.  They picked out their favorite sentences, which were mostly the sentences they thought were the most “stylistic.”  The students wrote these sentences on the board.  They erased all the words in the sentence so that only punctuation remained.  Finally, they inserted their own words where the authors’ had been, maintaining the integrity of the sentence structure (i.e., the punctuation) but conveying an entirely different message.  After doing this with several sentences, my students, some of them at least, began to see how professional authors use colons, dashes, and semi-colons.  They began to see how professional authors use different styles.  I believe they also learned ways to experiment with syntax. 

To employ Weathers’s wording, I hope the students learned “(1) how to recognize stylistic material, (2) how to transfer this stylistic material and make it a part of compositional technique, (3) how to combine stylistic materials into particular stylistic modes, and (4) how to adapt particular stylistic modes to particular rhetorical situations” (369).  I’m not sure my exercise provided much guidance as to # 4, but it seemed to teach the lessons of # 1, # 2, and # 3. 

Since I gave this exercise, I’ve noticed one sign of improvement among my students:  they have become better readers.  They know, for instance, what style they like.  Some students preferred Ginsburg’s style to Blumenthal’s, and vice versa.  At first, they weren’t sure why, but after the exercise, they slowly gained a sense of why they liked one more than the other.  One student claimed that Ginsburg’s piece was a faster read because it had fewer commas.  This student preferred short, matter-of-fact sentences with a quick rhythm.  I don’t think he realized this preference until he did the exercise.  I later gave this student a Hemingway passage and asked, “Is this the style you like?”  The student said that, indeed, this was the style he liked, and also that he was afraid that my reading assignments were encouraging students to write sentences in a New Yorker style: long, meandering, and comma-heavy.  This last comment was interesting on many levels.

Writing instructors ought to teach or at least encourage style. 

Style is important; style can be cultivated.

 

For further reading, see Winston Weathers, “Teaching Style: A Possible Anatomy,” in The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook, Fourth Edition.  Edited by Edward P. J. Corbett, Nancy Meyers and Gary Tate (Oxford University Press, 1999).

National Novel Writing Month

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, News and Current Events, News Release, Novels, Writing on October 27, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Readers of this site should know that November is National Novel Writing Month.  Every year, in November, writers use nanowrimo.org to dash off a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days (the site doesn’t track November 31).  Please check out the site and, if you’re interested, participate in the madness.  Here are some related links:

1.  About NaNoWriMo

2.  How NaNoWriMo Works

3.  History of NaNoWriMo

Teaching Audience

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on October 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post comes from a journal entry I wrote to myself in the fall of 2010.  The post addresses the importance of audience to writing, and more specifically to the teaching of writing.  Other posts on this site have addressed this topic: see here, here, here, here, and here

I’m sitting here at a small wooden desk in my hotel in Destin, Florida, beneath a window that overlooks crowded parking lots, ivy-lined tennis courts, swaying palm trees, and beyond all these, white sand and an emerald-blue ocean.  I haven’t shaved all weekend.  I’m slightly sunburned.  I feel refreshed, except that Giuliana keeps insisting I get a haircut before I head back to Auburn and she to Atlanta.  Instead of walking the beach with her, I’m reading The History of the Kings of Britain and considering what I’ll teach my college freshmen this week. 

I’ve skimmed my syllabus and revisited each underlined phrase and barely legible marginalia from my teaching notes, and now I’m considering a line by Douglas B. Park.  It says, “Locating and discussing the audience for a given piece of prose can be frustrating.” 

Indeed it can.  Just this week I gave my students an assignment that I hoped would teach a thing or two about audience.  I handed out two pieces of paper on which I had copied and pasted three articles about Cancun, Mexico.

I had drawn the first article from the website of a tourist agency, the second from a newspaper, and the third from a literary journal.  I asked my students the same question that Park posed to his students: “Who or what. . . is the audience for this piece?”   

My students replied that tourists—surprise, surprise!—were the targeted audience for article one (perhaps “brochure” is a better term than “article”).  But they couldn’t name the audience for the second and third articles.  They responded with things like “the general public” or “the average reader,” categories so broad as to lack any clear referent.  So I tried, without really knowing what I was doing, asking something like Park’s next question: “How does audience manifest itself to writers writing?”   

I think I put the question more simply: “What’s the point of each piece?”

Perhaps stuck on the first brochure, my students answered, “To persuade you to go to Cancun.” 

I was making progress, but not enough. 

“How,” I asked, “does the article accomplish that?”

One student said, “By bolding words like ‘vacation,’ ‘beach,’ and ‘fun.’”

“What could make this article more effective?” I said.

One student, in so many words, said, “More adjectives.  Some pictures.  Maybe a story or two.” 

The students seemed to “get” article one.  But articles two and three were harder to pin down.  When I repeated my question—“Who is the audience for this piece?”—the students said something like “smart people.” 

Not until this weekend did I realize why my exercise failed.  The failure had something to do with Park’s claim that in the “case of unstructured situations where we would call the audience ‘general,’ where no simple, concrete identifications of audience are possible, the whole concept [of audience] becomes much more elusive.”

Articles two and three were elusive.  Or maybe my exercise for articles two and three was elusive because it created an unstructured situation. 

What documents could I have used to show how different kinds of writings signal different audiences? 

One problem with my activity was that even I couldn’t determine the intended audience for articles two and three.  Presumably there were several audiences.  The point of advertising, after all, is to appeal to as many audiences as possible.     

To satisfy my students, I lumped together articles two and three and said something like, “Now you see how a persuasive piece is different from leisure reading or newspaper reading.” 

That was that.  My activity failed.  I learned, however, about what Park calls the “elusiveness of audience in written discourse.”  I learned that I needed a better exercise to show my students how to anticipate their audiences.  Read the rest of this entry »

What is a Research Paper, and How Does It Implicate Disciplinarity?

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on September 8, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Richard L. Larson interrogates the “research paper” signifier. He claims that this signifier lacks settled meaning because it “has no conceptual or substantive identity” (218). He calls the term “generic” and “cross-disciplinary” and claims that it “has virtually no value as an identification of a kind of substance in a paper” (218). Despite its empty or fluid meaning, the term “research paper” persists inside and outside English Departments, among faculty and students, at both university and secondary school levels. The problem for Larson is that by perpetuating the use of this slippery signifier, writing instructors mislead students as to what constitutes research and thereby enable bad research.

The term research paper “implicitly equates ‘research’ with looking up books in the library and taking down information from those books” (218); therefore, students learning to write so-called research papers inadvertently narrow their research possibilities by relying on a narrow conception of research as library visitation, note-taking, or whatever, without recognizing other forms of research that may be more discipline-appropriate: interviews, field observations, and the like (218). Using the term “research paper” to describe a particular type of activity implies not only that other, suitable practices are not in fact “research,” but also that students may dispense with elements of logic and citation if their instructors didn’t call the assignment a “research paper.” Really, though, research papers teach skills that apply to all papers, regardless of whether instructors designate a paper as “research.” In a way, all papers are research papers if they draw from sustained observation or studied experience.

Having argued that the term research paper is a vacant signifier—vacant of identity if not of meaning (not that the two are mutually exclusive)—Larson argues that the “provincialism” (220) of writing instructors (by which he means writing instructors’ presumption that they can and should speak across disciplines despite their lack of formal training in other disciplines) leads to a problem of territoriality. Some information belongs in the province of other disciplines, Larson seems to suggest, and writing instructors should not assume that they know enough about other disciplines to communicate in a discipline-appropriate setting. Some knowledge, in other words, lies outside the writing instructor’s jurisdiction. I’m ambivalent on this score. Read the rest of this entry »

AJC Decatur Book Festival

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Essays, Fiction, Humanities, Literature on August 31, 2011 at 7:56 am

Allen Mendenhall

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Decatur Book Festival will take place this weekend (September 2 – 4, 2011).  Click here for more details.  The festival features lectures and book signings by over 300 others.  The complete list of authors is available here.

Power Made Perfect in Weakness

In Art, Arts & Letters, Communication, Creative Writing, Emerson, Essays, Humanities, Law, Literature, Poetry, Shakespeare, Teaching on August 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Allen Mendenhall

I wrote the following piece about three weeks ago, while I was vacationing in Destin, Florida, with my family.

If we expect others to rely on our fairness and justice we must show that we rely on their fairness and justice.

Calvin Coolidge

My wife and I are on vacation in Florida.  Yesterday morning, over a cup of coffee and a doughnut, sitting on the balcony and reading the newspaper amid sounds of seagulls and the grating roll of morning waves, I noted that one Michael Stone—a blind man, XTERRA champion, and 10-time Ironman triathlete who recently published a book, Eye Envy—will speak at the University of North Florida on August 13.  I haven’t read Stone’s book, but it’s apparently a resource not only for those suffering from vision-loss any degenerative disease.

Stone began to lose his sight in 2004.  His blindness is a result of a rare disease called cone-rod dystrophy.  Despite his handicap, he has accomplished amazing things, but not without the help of others.  During races, he relies on guides, who shout directions and warnings to him.

I’ll never understand why God makes some people handicapped and others not, why some must rely on others, and some must be relied on.  Someday and for a time, everyone relies on someone or something and is relied on by someone or something.      Read the rest of this entry »

What Glynda Hull and Mike Rose Learned from Researching Remedial Writing Programs

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Humanities, Information Design, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on July 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Based on their research of remedial writing programs, Glynda Hull and Mike Rose conclude in “This Wooden Shack Place” that students of writing often offer arguments that at first seem wacky or wrong, but that are actually logical and coherent. These students give unique and insightful interpretations that teachers, fixed in their privileged and heavily conditioned interpretive communities, cannot always realize or appreciate. Hull and Rose treat this student-teacher disjuncture as revealing as much about the teacher as it does about the student. Finally, Hull and Rose conclude that student readings that seem “off the mark” may be “on the mark” depending on where the interpreter—the teacher or student—is coming from or aiming. 

Along these lines, Hull and Rose describe “moments of mismatch between what a teacher expects and what students do.” These moments demonstrate that teachers and students come to writing with different values and assumptions shaped by various experiences. Hull and Rose focus on one student, whom they call “Robert,” to substantiate their claims that students respond to literature based on cultural history and background.

Robert and his peers read a poem that Hull and Rose have reproduced in their essay: “And Your Soul Shall Dance for Wakako Yamauchi.” Working together, the student-readers agreed on certain interpretive generalizations but failed to reach consensus about particular lines and meanings. Some students “offered observations that seemed to be a little off the mark, unusual, as though the students weren’t reading the lines carefully.” Robert, a polite boy with a Caribbean background and Los Angeles upbringing, was one of these students. He commented about the poem in a way that troubled Rose—until, that is, Rose pressed Robert about the poem during a student-teacher conference, which Rose recorded. Robert challenged and surprised Rose at this conference by offering a plausible reading, which Rose had not considered. Read the rest of this entry »

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