Monday, September 1, 2014
Age Appropriate Narcisism and Critical Literacy
Dr. Isabelle Stelmahoske was my freshman English teacher. That class was 40 years ago, but it lingers with me today and has colored my career as a teacher of writing.
That class, like many first-year comp classes at the time, was decidedly expressivist. We wrote personal essays. Dr. Stelmahoske wrote more reader response comments than directive or prescriptive, and I was smitten with the work of the course.
Despite being a non-writer, I began keeping a journal, recording days snow-shoeing off campus and climbing trips to Devil's Lake. My life suddenly became the subject of record and reflection. I began to observe closely, to think and to carry a pen with me wherever I went.
We read Donald Hall's Writing Well and talked in class about each others' writing. I read about the different effects that word choice can produce, the difference between, for example, "dishwater blonde," and "strawberry blonde," the difference between an abstract, lazy platitude like "education is paramount," to "I don't know what I will do now that I made it to college or why I worked so hard to get here."
Both Hall and Dr. S. used our interests in our own lives to contextualize and then teach craft, how we could become agents in shaping our own narratives.. Because I was interested in finding out what I thought, I was also interested in improving how I presented my observations and ruminations. Dr. S. seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say, and conveyed the message that what we had to say was worth a reader's attention. She was what I would later call "student-centered."
I began to see how I was shaped by personal, family, cultural, religious, and political "stories." I came to college with a vague and conservative belief that my own privilege, social hierarchies, and power relations were all somehow "natural," that what I saw on TV and read in Time or Newsweek was "true."
I did not see discourse as written; it was just received.
I switched from a major in forestry to English and began to make a life out of words. I saw that mine was a life made of story and that I was the narrator.
When I transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the drama of the personal enlarged to include social history. Brilliant teachers like Harvey Goldberg pulled back the curtain of obfuscating ideologies. The stories that ran my life grew from being personal to being cultural, social, and political. What I had taken at face value for truth became suspect. The stories being disseminated about the nobility of US foreign policy became cynical fabrications that supported dictatorships and undercut popular organizing.
A brain specialist might say my frontal cortex was forming enough to handle more complex "formal operations," that I was ready for a higher level of concept load and theory. That may be true, but I also see an organic progression from personal interest to engaged social empathy.
Whatever the cause, "expository" writing made more sense to me than it had before. The aversion I had to it began to subside and it became a living, elegant, necessary form of writing rather than the mere academic exercise it had been in high school. I could see my place in it, had an investment in it, using the parlance of market economy.
I would not have been ready for this during my first semester at college, yet it was what I am asked to do as a teacher of writing at my current university.
What I am saying is that I feel (yes, I know that is subjective, anecdotal) that I am skipping a step, that my students lack some of the personal engagement I acquired from Dr. S.
I prefer to ask my students to look at how literacy has played a role in helping them to expose the roles that images, sounds, words and narrative shape them, their identities, beliefs, values, how understanding the shapes of stories, how they can revise these stories, how doing so empowers (yes, another dated word) them.
Friends who know brain research tell me that the frontal cortex "lights up" whenever humans want to work on a particular problem. Desire is a funny thing, but may just be the missing link between student engagement and academic writing courses.