Monthly Archives: December 2012

Why do we write…dare I ask?

I’ve learned my lesson.  After 5 years teaching writing courses I no longer assign a final paper. Frankly…they sucked. I competed with that anthropology paper and that bio final and the senior portfolio, and the work produced was riddled with typos… themeless, meaningless, and rambling.  There were a few exceptions, but in the main they were quite terrible.  Now I assign a final reflection. This serves two purposes.

1. The students are not forced to create yet another final paper. and, perhaps more importantly, I’m not forced to grade yet another paper!

2. The students reflect on work created over the semester (something they forget to do as we rush to pack and leave for break).

It is a pause.  A chance to reflect on what is learned and a chance to step back and examine.

Among the questions I ask to be included on the final reflection is “Why do you write.”

This is a huge question. It should be a huge question.  In the past the answers have ranged from “I write as if I do not I will explode” to “I write to be known. To understand myself and my world.”  This last response echos Joan Didion’s words.

“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”


As I sort through my notes I will post some student responses in this space. In the interim, why do you write?


Too Young for Masterpiece Theatre?

Today in class we explored blogging.  Students were to create a niche blog. We splashed them up on the big media screen, showcasing the hobbies, expertise, illnesses, peccadilloes and passions of this batch of college media writers.

From blogs about dancing to satirical pairings of weapons with fashion, the students delivered interesting content and surprised me with their expertise.

One student was a University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Office Certified Master Beef Producer.

His girlfriend, also in my class, created a blog pairing food with movies. 

Later she joked that his blog, “Master Beef Producer” should be married with her blog for a co-effort called “Master Beef Theatre” and I found this exceptionally funny. There were some polite smiles and a laugh or two from her peers, but I found this so funny that I over-explained, “Get it, like Masterpiece Theatre?  That’s fabulous,”  I gushed. Again, a lukewarm response from the classroom. Then it occurred to me that while Masterpiece Theatre is known, it is not perhaps a huge part of pop culture as it was when I was growing up. I credit Downton Abbey with the resurgence of popularity for Masterpiece, yet I feel that it is still not the cultural touchstone it was when I was a child.


When I grew up in East Tennessee in the 1970 Masterpiece was not a part of our culture, it WAS our culture. Alistair Cooke defined good taste and serious moments.  If we entered a beautifully decorated restaurant with wood paneling, we would sit in a chair and say “Good evening, I’m Alistair Cooke, and welcome to your dinner” and  if we made a quick trip to the public library, we would grab a stack of small books, sit down and say “Good evening, I’m Alistair Cooke and welcome to the library.”


Cooke even entered our children’s programming as Cookie Monster hosting “Monsterpiece Theater.”

Many years later when I was engaged I wanted to march down the aisle to “you know that Masterpiece Theatre song” as it defined elegance for me, even in the new century.

Am I alone in this? Any other babies of the seventies and eighties feel that real ‘class’ will forever be associated with a serious chair, a smoking jacket, wood paneling, overstuffed curtains, and a stack of books with titles such as Love for Lydia and the Golden Bowl?

The Tardy Perfectionist

I just left class with a smile on my face.  A student made the decision to turn a paper in late and take a grade deduction.  She noted that she preferred to turn in late work of excellent quality than to turn in work that is on time but has some errors.

While we professor-types cringe at late papers.  A late paper in a writing workshop paired for single-editor-peer-review results in one student sitting alone in the corner, absent a paper to review, looking bored.  This student did her work.  She dutifully read and reviewed the work of a classmate, scribbled notes in the margin, both prescriptive and descriptive, fixed the wayward comma, slashed the adverbs.  But here the student sits, with no one to review her work, as the other student is “still-really-struggling-with-this-can-I-please-get-an-extension?”

Worse still, I feel as if I need to entertain the student who completed the work on time and is left bereft of a paper to review.  I try to engage in good-natured conversation. “Hey, I see that your peer review is complete.  What do you want to talk about?  I see you are reading Foucault. How about his work on Kant, huh?  Good stuff!”

The awkwardness of missing a peer session aside, the deduction in grade, the often misplaced paper as it is not turned in with the others, all these are a drag, but…

Here’s a secret.

I also respect the student who refuses to turn in sub-par work.  The student must learn that there are deadlines, hence the deduction in grade, but the student is also learning that she is willing to take the hit if it means that the final product will be excellent, error-free work.

Did I say I left the classroom smiling?

So You Want to Run a College Student Newspaper?

Part of my role on campus is to supervise our student newspaper/multimedia effort, The Echo.  I’ve usually a crew of a dozen students.  These are the writers, photographers, designers, web folks, that want to tell the story of their campus.  These are (hopefully!) the muckrakers, the diggers, the shit-stirrers, the investigators.  Some writers are excellent at reporting straight news, while some like to stir the pot.  We need both types.  Stories of a new building on campus should stand beside stories of more controversial nature. (Joe Biden’s lackluster visit to town, a controversy over the campus ballots, nudity on campus).  I admit a fondness for topics that raise eyebrows.  It is vital that a student newspaper inform and educate, but equally vital that we engage, that we do not shy from controversy but embrace it.  Embracing controversy means exploring both sides, and so I am excited to see what two of my talented writers create in our upcoming issues as they go belly-to-belly (and toe-to-toe and thigh-to-thigh…) exploring nudity on campus. Looking forward to seeing what they flesh out (pun intended). Watch this page for the final drafts.