Truth: I really, really struggle to understand academic texts. I posted this on Facebook tonight:
sometimes academic-speak makes my head hurt. oh wait, who am i kidding? all the time. i wrote myself a to do note: believe that i can still be a successful educator without using the big words and conflated language that don’t always make sense to me.
I did okay in my Sociology courses; I read articles about mommy blogs and students with children. I connected them with my work in the Women’s Resource Center and consequently became a self-appointed advocate for other students like myself. I even did okay in my Literature courses, reading about Miltonic marriage and synthesizing other writers’ thoughts into a new (to me) concept of Heaven, Hell, and God. These were big ideas, and I survived.
But when it comes to grappling with composition, rhetoric, new media, and digital writing…I have an extremely difficult time. I think it is because I’m not reading these articles simply to write about them for an assignment, and instead am trying to whittle them into useful lessons I could use in a writing classroom.
Grace got Legos for Christmas. She’s been building houses and people and chairs, and specifically this one car that has a front seat and a back seat with a “tv for baby Jesus” and a roof “to keep the wind out.” This specific car, though, collapses often. She’s built it so top heavy that it barely stays together, the roof lacks support and thus she couldn’t add side pieces to also keep out the wind. It falls apart, and she gets really angry with herself (and the pieces) and then we have to take a break. She doesn’t understand that the heavy top pieces need bottom support, and she doesn’t always want to follow the instructions (or she wants to build something that looks different). As I was lamenting (really, I was!) the difficulty I have understanding composition scholarship, my partner pointed out that it’s kind of like Grace with her Legos – you can’t just give someone a box of Legos and expect them to build something really great if they don’t understand the way that construction works (um, at least at a very basic 5 year old level).
One of my professors asked, in response to my Facebook post, what I was reading that was so difficult. I replied that it wasn’t what I was reading, exactly – the chapter I had finished wasn’t bad, and I took notes as I read and I somehow made sense of it, at least some of it. It’s that I really want small, simple lessons. I want scholarship that I can read with my students, instead of having to translate theory into application for them when I don’t entirely understand it myself. I want to learn alongside my students, and I want to feel comfortable bringing scholarship that I’m reading into my classroom for them to read too. I want to know what works, in teaching writing. I want to know what to teach my students, on a very practical level, that will help them become better, more confident, self-efficacious, capable writers. I want to know what to teach them so that they can communicate effectively through writing. I know that in graduate school, we wrestle with big concepts. I have a hard time finding a thread to grab on to. I’m very interested in new media, for example, and it seems so huge to me that I’m not sure where to begin, where to start. I’m interested in composing in digital environments, but I feel like I need to be able to somehow grasp it in its entirety (or at least enough of it) in order to make use of it, and I’m not there yet.
I’ve had many great instructors over the 9 years it took me to finish my undergraduate degree. Those that were most memorable didn’t speak to me in academic-ese. I hardly remember what we read in class, but I do remember feeling that the material was accessible, and that my instructors were confident that the activities or lessons they were using were going to teach us something necessary, something visible, something important. There are two classes that stand out to me as especially significant: One, a Generation X Special Topics Literature course at HFCC taught by John Rietz. Two, an Introduction to Creative Writing course at WCC taught by Jane Ratcliffe. Neither of these two instructors were particularly “academic.” Jane said once that she had gotten her MFA so that she could teach, though she doesn’t teach regularly and I don’t think has taught that class since I took it in 2010. John Rietz teaches Composition and Literature courses at HFCC and while I had him for three courses total, I don’t remember much about my early undergrad. Here’s what I do remember:
I took Generation X Lit because it sounded cool. I began that course as a 19 year old practicing evangelical Christian, and left it without religion, and with a newfound critical approach to nearly everything. I wasn’t always paying attention, and didn’t always read the assigned books (we read a lot of books). I met the man who would eventually become the father of my child, and I started a job at Starbucks and left it within the same month. I took Professor Rietz later on for American Literature, and for Composition II; I’m not sure which course it was that I had with him when I was pregnant with my daughter, but he treated me as an equal, as an intelligent individual with a huge amount of potential, and that feeling of empowerment I will never forget. I didn’t get all A’s in his classes, but I did take with me the memory of an educator who was laid back, funny, comfortable, and approachable. He made higher education, and consequently theory (postmodernism!) inviting. Nothing about those courses was alienating or unattainable. Winter wasn’t gray and nauseating; I saw white and brightness.
Jane’s creative writing class was fiction-based. I. Do. Not. Write. Fiction. I was writing poetry, and had been writing poetry for most of my life but had stopped in the years before I had my daughter and hadn’t picked it back up. I can remember exactly where I was standing when I realized why I had stopped writing, and decided to start again. I was pushing Grace in a stroller, walking down Main St. in downtown Plymouth not far from the tiny apartment we were renting. I was on the phone with somebody. Jane had us do workshops; right away, we were assigned days to present our work – first with 6-8 pages, and second with 8-10 pages. Each person would share their work twice, and each day two people read. After you read your story, every student (who had a copy of your work) would have the opportunity to share their thoughts and offer feedback, which ended with Jane having the final say. Once, we did something similar to blackout poems, we read part of O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and talked about how what we carry (or what our characters carry) is a way to describe them beyond just their faces – she always reminded us that our characters had bodies, and that we should show and not tell the action. Another time we read some of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, but I can’t remember why. Jane found this giant stuffed horse for Grace, and one day she pulled me aside after class and said that she wanted to push me because she thought I had talent. I left class that particular day with tears in my eyes. Jane always wore black, and I still think about her every time I put on my favorite black shirt.
What stands out to me in these memories is that these learning experiences were tangible. They were touchable and human and not lost in the theory clouds. I was given something small – a pebble – and was able to build with that, rather than trying to sort through something that didn’t make sense to me in order to prove that I had mastered a concept. This is how I want to teach composition, and this is how I want to approach my own scholarship and the writing I consume. I want to know how to teach writing at a very basic level. I want to know what works. I want a toolbox that lets us build and evolve, and I want it to make sense.
My students want to learn grammar, and basic methods and rules for putting together a research paper, an argument, an annotated bibliography. I don’t feel prepared to give them these lessons; my nose is buried in ideas that are fascinating, but too far off the ground for me to use right now. This isn’t to say they aren’t valuable – I was reading about intellectual property and postmodern ideas of text – but I’m worried that the scholarship I am engaged with (and wanting to share) is going to further alienate my students who are already struggling to understand difficult material, or who are told that they need to learn how to write (we all need to learn how to write). Where is the point of entry? How do I channel these educators who were so inspiring to me, when I can’t pinpoint exactly what practical lessons I took away from those experiences that directly contributed to my development as a writer? How did I learn to do a research paper? I have no idea. How did I learn which sources were good and which were less credible? Common sense, maybe? Appearance? I don’t know.
I worry about not being able to keep up with academic scholarship. It makes my head hurt, if I am to be completely honest. I worry that because I don’t particularly like 25 page articles written in academic speak, that I won’t be able to succeed in this field. The two instructors I mentioned? They never gave us articles to read. They gave us fiction (or non-fiction), and let us interpret, led us in discussion about concepts and ideas, but not the metacognitive writing-about-writing books that I’ve stashed in my living room in various piles. Where are my resources? How do I build this toolbox? How do I teach from experience when it is fuzzy, and from tried-and-true lessons that do justice to the evolving and expanding notions of text while still focusing on literacy as a fundamental goal? One response: write. Just write. How that shifts into the classroom? I’m not so sure.