Congratulations Award Winners: Now Here’s Your Writing Assignment

On November 10, 2015, I was the guest speaker for the Induction Ceremony of the Golden Key Honors Society at Lehman College, CUNY.  Here’s what I said:

Congratulations! Thank you so much or having me here and for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of my esteemed honorees.

I could go on forever about what a momentous occasion this is (some of my students are here and they’re like, “yeah that’s true, she can talk”). But we’re short on time so let’s begin with a brief writing assignment. Please take out a pen and paper or a laptop. If you’re without these things, it’s okay. In a minute I’ll pass out a blue book so you can answer questions about the meaning of today’s ceremony.

Just kidding. I really don’t have a writing assignment for you. But I bet if I did have a writing assignment, you could do it.

No, I know you could do it. Because you’ve already done this. Countless times in your college careers you’ve marked occasions by writing them into existence. When you wrote that History paper, or the lab report, or the short story, or the political argument you probably did not call these tasks “momentous occasions.” But that’s what they were: the occasion of deciding that you cared enough about your thinking to put yourself and your mind out there.

Of course we care in all kinds of ways.

But for the next three minutes I want to argue that one of the most profound ways to care about anything is to find a way to write about it using language—the common fabric of our humanity.

Now you might think that the only reason I’m celebrating writing is because I’m an English Professor. And because I’m an English professor I just love writing. I mean, what could be more pleasurable than spending Sunday nights alone at my desk, staring at a blank screen, waiting for sentences to come for an essay due weeks ago, while the rest of New York City settles in for a good, long evening of Netflix binge-watching? And what could be more gratifying than finally finding those sentences at 2am, then waking up at 6am to realize that these are, by far, the very worst sentences I’ve ever written and therefore I need to: make coffee, clean my closets, bicker with my children, and, finally, start the whole thing over again.

No. I don’t love writing. Like everyone else, I kind of hate it. And I hate it because it’s so hard. It’s mentally and physically exhausting and takes up too much time. And yet I continue to write. I always will. And I think you will do. All of us in higher education write. We need to write. Because putting observations and ideas and issues and problems and positions into words are ways to counter both epistemological and existential loneliness. We compose to recognize ourselves so that we can reach out to others.

Just for a second, let’s think about the steps you’d have to take if I actually did give out these blue books, and if you actually did have to do an on-the-spot essay.  The first thing you’d do is get pretty pissed off. Fair enough. But then you’d do something amazing: you would attempt to read my mind by getting out of yours. That is, you’d try and figure out what on earth I wanted from you. Then you’d start writing with that perspective in mind. Soon, you’d find yourself getting a little bit into this assignment. And once you did, you’d forget all about my question and my needs, and you’d start writing for someone or something else. And just like that, in under a minute, you’d be time traveling and shape shifting. This is writing: a superhuman, supernatural activity.

Because we live in an age of instant communication, we may forget just what a miracle the technology of writing is. But it is a miracle: of persistence and perseverance and caring and connecting.

When I teach writing, whether freshman composition or advanced literature courses, I always begin class with the essay “The Death of the Author” by the French philosopher Roland Barthes. Barthes argues that when we read we shouldn’t worry about an author’s intended meaning. Instead, we should connect to great works by writing back to them: by participating in the life of that work. In Barthes’s words, a text’s purpose “lies not in its origin but in its destination.”

He means that writing not only says, it does something.

But literary theorists and English professors aren’t the ones claiming that writing prepares us for surprising paths.  Just a few months ago, the President of the United States said much the same thing. Perhaps you’ve read the conversation between President Obama and the Pulitzer Prize novelist Marilynne Robinson published in The New York Review of Books. In this discussion, President Obama reflects that reading and writing were his greatest teachers. They teach us to “be comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found…that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you. “

It is gratifying to know that all of us here, and those who will be here next year and the years after, are different but connected, alone in our thoughts but together in thinking, and that our divergent destinations have found productive, caring ground at college, in this room, on this momentous occasion which will no doubt take you very far. Congratulations.

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Teaching is Embarrassing: Manifesto on Higher Education for the Start of 2015

On September 16, for Convocation at Lehman College, I was honored to be awarded Teacher of the Year.  I gave a one minute acceptance speech.  I hope this serves as a welcome back to the blog and to the new year.  Thanks for reading, and a special shout-out to my Lehman, Graduate Center, and CUNY-wide colleagues, friends, and students for mentorship and support.

Teacher of the Year Acceptance Speech, Sept 16, 2015

Thank you so much. I’m truly honored by this award and grateful for the opportunity to share with you—very briefly—my personal philosophy about the meaning of teaching.

Here it is.

Teaching is incredibly … embarrassing. 

It’s embarrassing. I don’t mean the kind of day-to-day humiliations that could come with professor-student interactions (though there are plenty of those).

No.  I mean teaching is embarrassing in the existential sense, in the sense of having to confront who we are and everything we hold sacred.

I study great books and basic writing skills. At least that’s what I believe about five minutes before walking into my classroom.  But once I’m in the classroom, what’s great about my literature or essential about standards comes into contact with you: suspicious, brave, and brilliant Lehman students.  And then nothing about their beauty and truth seems so obvious anymore.

That’s when the work begins.  We read, write, and reflect together—sometimes clumsily, always rigorously—until this subject matter is embarrassed into a different existence, one that is more inclusive, real, and more beautiful and true than what came before.

Thanks to the digital revolution, we are all existentialists now: questioning who we are and what we have and will hold sacred in the near future.

As the academy confronts the radical shifts that the digital age brings, and accommodates and recreates accordingly, I hope to also question innovation that claims it’s possible to teach and learn at a distance—without the confusing, time consuming, and, well, embarrassing connections of classroom life. Because these connections make our disciplines—make us—human.

Thank you again.

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September: Already Gone, Always to Return

Welcome (back?) after a long hiatus. My first post for the 2014 academic year was published on another site–the AEPL blog: The Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning–thanks for the opportunity.

Perpetual September: On Being a Beginner in an Age of Complexity

September is the most muddled of months: a mix of summer and fall, of shorter days and longer commitments, of anticipation laced with last year’s losses.

And then school starts.

The rituals of a new term—the schedules and expectations and first impressions—should by now be old hat.  Over a decade of teaching and writing and almost the same for parenting means that I can update syllabi, reuse supplies, even trust that I’ll finish that essay’s last draft.  Still, every start of the year reminds me of the persistent challenge and delayed rewards of starting over.

Beginnings are always hard.  But in the last few years it seems like Septembers are getting more challenging. The digital revolution asks anew how we are to survive and thrive in a society becoming more competitive and complex by the moment. And education seems to be a focal point for our anxiety. We’re a “race to the top nation”; everyone can and should be ahead of their time.

Over the last half-decade countless colleges and universities are revisiting their general education curricula, updating them to meet perceived needs of a culture that needs results, not rookies.  A host of recently passed federally mandated and state standards at the K-12 and college level confirm this view by defining the purpose of courses by their measurable endgames—by how they prepare students for a certain and useful future. The result has been mass cutting of introductory courses: of time spent adjusting to the beginning. “Come the Revolution” writes New York Times opinion writer Thomas Friedman ushering in a debate about a new kind of education for a generation of “mastery.”  Knowledge needs to be tailored, networked, global, and, above all else, determined by its outcomes.


 yood1  source


“Make your point first, write your introduction last” I instruct my first-year composition students, trying to rescue them from the snare of endless first sentences and the pitfalls of missed deadlines.  I say this year after year. Yet the truth is that introductions rarely just find themselves fully formed at the end of the page, ripe for mere cutting and pasting.  Like everything about the writing process, they happen painstakingly and haphazardly.  By my fifth draft I can’t say what paragraph came first or last. I only know (and barely) when I have to let that piece go because another one awaits.

Beginning permeates everything, especially in education. Each new semester and class and every first paragraph feels like learning again how to breathe. The process is natural and excruciating all at once.

But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Last September, as my institution inaugurated its updated curriculum for this complex age, I decided to do some research on the role of starting out in a culture of finishers. And it turns out that beginners—deep, critical, curious, fearless and fearful minds embarking on the unknown—are critical to a transforming world.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”  The opening line to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki suggests that seeking complexity by cultivating mastery clutters clarity and truth.




This book’s rigorous instructions on meditating insist that advanced understanding requires concentrated work at recognizing what’s really in front of us, not just what lies ahead. Being a beginner in the Zen tradition is not a disease to be inoculated from with specialized study.  Rather it’s the endpoint of accessing wisdom, and complexity.

Through his research on cell reproduction, the American Biologist Stuart Kauffman comes to a remarkably similar conclusion. “Something has obviously happened in the past 4.8 billion years,” he writes in his book Investigations.  “The biosphere has expanded, indeed, more or less persistently exploded into the ever-expanding adjacent possible.”  His observations of living and social systems reveal a universe that is evolving differently than before: towards more complexity. But in order to sustain this move towards more complexity we need a constant supply of new beginnings, what Kauffman defines as not-fully evolved life-forms of the “adjacent possible.”

The “adjacent possible” represents those structures in the universe that are at the start of their development. They have not yet combined with other structures, what Kauffman calls the “actuals” of the universe.  But they are moving towards evolution. He calls these structures “almost actuals.” Without them, complexity stagnates.


source yood3

 Blame it on science. Or meditation. Or middle age almost upon me. Whatever the reason, I’m starting to appreciate that moving on—to the next page, the new class, October—can’t happen without this perpetual starting over. In a culture that functions as if it’s always the blooming season of spring, I’ll stick with September.

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from On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

“Mom? Mom–you’re breaking up, I can’t hear you. It’s like a tornado out here. I’ll call you back when I’m out of the city,” said Jerome, which was childish, but for the moment he and his siblings formed an inviolable gang of three, and he would not be the one to break the delicate bond into which a little coincidence had delivered them.  They sat on stools lined up against the windowpane….They caught up with each other’s news casually, leaving long, cosy gaps of silence in which to go to work on their muffins and coffees.  Jerome–after two months of having to be witty and brilliant in a strange town among strangers–appreciated the gift of it.  People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two lovers, but this too was great; sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating. Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel–before all of these things there had only been one person…and only one place: a tent in the living room made of bed-sheets.  After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he has always been. Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues….He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.

for David, and nbmjy

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Inventing Critical University Studies

Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion–invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English. The student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.

The well-known rhetoric and composition scholar David Bartholomae wrote these words  over two decades ago. (It was 1986 to be exact: the year I started high school and the song “That’s What Friends Are For” was number 1 on the charts–more on the symbolic import of all that another time.)

The phrase “inventing the university,” also the title of the article, became a mantra for the “social turn” in English departments and writing programs in the 1980s and 1990s.  Writing is social, context-specific, and situational. Students (and all writers) should not seek to compose or create something new. Our job is to creatively adopt and adapt discourse to suit the situation we are writing into. We don’t discover language, it discovers us.

I taught this way for twenty years.  Discourse first, rhetoric always, purpose and position paramount. Invent the university: yes. Also: invent literary theory or cultural criticism and, when I was coordinating our Writing Across the Curriculum Program, I’d add that students should also invent the laboratory report, the business memo, the case-report. Invention is knowledge and power.

That was two years ago.

As recent readers know, I spent 2012-13, my sabbatical year, as a student of freshman composition. I am in the middle of putting together my data and reflecting on that experience for a book entitled From Culture to Complexity: Writing, Teaching and Higher Education, 1992-2012. Bartholomae’s canonical essay helps me realize that most of my findings come down to this:  You can’t invent the university. Maybe you could in 1986. Maybe I did in 1991, when I turned 18 and took my first year college writing seminar.

But I can’t in 2014. Or at least my classmates and I couldn’t.

We certainly put in the college try.  In assignment after assignment there was an attempt to find the discourse of the “occasion”: the genre, topic, audience, university expectation. But every piece of writing we did (I’ve collected hundreds) came up short.  The good, the bad, the unfinished–almost all of our assignments fail to fit into any idea of the university.

That’s because when Bartholomae argued that students need to invent the university he believed that a university did indeed exist.  I don’t think that’s the case now.  You can’t try on the discourses of the university if you don’t know what the university is: what it does, who it’s for, where it’s going.

Perhaps it’s time to realize that the emperor has no clothes.

And so the next phase of this blog and book is to move from describing freshman composition in our new culture wars era to describing composition in our post-universal idea-of-the-university moment.

We can’t invent the university. But we may be able to write what Jeffrey Williams and others call “critical university studies.”


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Can Outcomes Matter in Humanities Courses? Two Drafts of a Paper

Assignment: Compose an analytical essay about your experiences in this first semester of college.  What might these courses help you do in your future?

Draft One-Nov 8, 2013

I am not taking any class this semester other than this English 111.  But I am teaching three, and learning something different from each one and, about the experience of teaching three classes and taking one.  The first thing I am learning is that there is never a day, when I am taking or teaching a class, that I don’t want the day to be over before it starts.

That is because teaching, for me, is about performing some kind of enthusiasm for a subject. And I am increasingly suspicious of my subject.  I constantly ask myself, as a scholar and reader, the question that propels this writing assignment: “What will this subject yield in the future?”I confess that I don’t know what students will do with “The Novel” or “Basic Writing” or “Cultural Studies” in the future, because the future feels foreign to me, in the way that it didn’t when I was a student.  It feels at once so new—robots, globalization, cyber-reality—and so sure of itself—we will know everything soon.  Insisting to students that they are learning something from the word of the mind, from literature and intellectual discourse is, well, challenging.  Insisting that they, or I, connect to (or confine to) a version of “success” is also problematic.  

 Perhaps that is what propelled me into this profession to begin with; I thought of knowledge, literature, and culture as ambiguous, what we used to call in the 1990s, a “construct” created by some hegemonic discursive power (I think that’s a direct crib from Foucault).  My “profession”—my subject—is, largely, the “professoriate”—academia, and more specifically, the study and teaching of language, literature, and rhetoric.  That definition, is itself emblematic of the way my subject matter resists the definitive.  Question: “What have you learned from taking this course in writing, in the novel, in literary theory?”  Answer: that we need to continuously re-evaluate what we are learning based on what we read, who we encounter, what history does to selves and societies.

 But ours is the age of the definitive.  The “Common Core” and CUNY’s “Pathways” and the “Race to the Top” culture demands defined success.  And I think it is more than my own mid-life crisis (did I mention I am taking a freshman composition course?) that makes me question what the study of literature and writing will mean as data and determined rubrics for skills take over the economy and education.

 And so, back to the beginning: I am enrolled in first-year composition because I am looking forward to figuring out what to do in this age of transition. And writing seems one way to find out.

Draft Two

Can the Future be an Outcome?

There used to be two versions of the college course syllabus.  There was the one the professor gave to the students and the one she kept in her head, or in her drawer, or in a file.  The students’ version, the “official” or public copy had all the usual information needed to navigate the class from week one to week fourteen: dates organized by weeks, readings due, assignments and their deadlines, and policies—the  “I won’t accept late papers” or “Midterm counts for 30% of the final grade” or “Office hours Tuesdays from 11:15-11:40”—type of policies.  I’ve received dozens of these syllabi over the course of four years in college and five as a graduate student; I’ve given out as many since becoming a professor of English in 2000.  The purpose for these documents was to map at the trajectory of the course; the purpose of the courses was presented as more of a promise: show up and fulfill the requirements of the syllabus and the meaning of the class for you, for your studies, indeed for your future would be revealed.[do1] 

But as the economic downturn, globalization, the ubiquity of digital media, the changing geopolitical power structures of nations becomes the norm, “the future” and what will count as meaningful and important for success in it, is increasingly unknown and complex.  At the height of uncertainty, scarcity of resources and technological and cultural complexity comes a new kind of syllabus: the outcomes statement syllabus[do2] .  This essay explores the relationship between the courses I teach—humanities seminars and beginning writing classes—and these new syllabi.  I find the relationship vexed and ambiguous[do3] .  Here I attempt to work through some of the thorny issues of that connection and to consider whether the new college syllabi—and, presumably, more outcomes-oriented college courses—can lead to a “successful future.”            

In the outcomes syllabus, a professor includes the learning goals for the course and how these goals will be measured, through assignments, feedback, and, ultimately, rubrics that offer a grade. The simplest and, to my mind most accurate, definition of “outcomes statements” comes from Christopher Gallagher, a professor of writing: “statements identifying what students will know or be able to do at the end of an activity, unit of instruction, course, or program of study” (44).[1]  Google “syllabus” in courses ranging from Physics to Philosophy and you’ll find these statements, especially from public colleges and universities, where they have been mandated with more oversight than the private, liberal arts institutions[2] [do4] Outcomes statements can be very rigorously specific or aspirational and vague vague, like my own.[3][do5] 

 In the early years of the 2000s, American colleges and universities began mandating these statements in college syllabi. A recent report[do6]  published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education offers a brief history of the studies leading to this decision.  The dominating question of [do7] In an age when what counts as knowledge is shifting and since 2008 especially, when job loss and global economic crises change the funding for and priority in educational investment, outcomes have become one answer to the question “What is College For?” and more specifically, “What Will College Do for Me in the Future?”

In their widely cited polemic Academically Adrift Richard Arum and Josiah Roska join the ever-increasing chorus of naysayers who believe that colleges should be held accountable to better, higher, more accurate standards. Since the publication of that book in 2011and in concert with an ever-growing concern about government “entitlement” spending, assessment in general and outcome statements in particular has become a kind of panacea for a new education crisis. The last few years (2010-2013) have been particularly active for the Obama administration, which aims to explicitly link federal funding to measurable results of college-wide and course specific outcomes statements, as this recent Inside Higher Ed article explains.[do8] 

Traditional humanities courses, where students learn “critical thinking” and practice reading and writing in ever-increasing complex ways offer a challenge to the outcomes culture.  These courses, which marry skills acquisition (writing effectively) with idea-generation (reading critically), have many outcomes but not as many ways to measure them.  It’s not that you can’t measure whether or not a student has read particular books or can write cogently about them. You can. Professors and high-stakes testing and essay exams do all the time, with varying degrees of uniformity.  The challenge the humanities bring to outcomes involves something else.  Having satisfied all the learning goals of a course on, say, “The Novel” or “English Composition” or “Literary and Cultural Studies in the 1990s” (three courses I am teaching this semester) professors and students will still not be sure [do9] if those skills or “habits of mind” as we in the humanities like to say, will be obviously connected to “the future.”  That is, if the future means what the Obama administration is calling the “new” jobs of the “twenty-first century.”

In my own scholarly field, Composition and Rhetoric, there is an entire new sub-discipline emerging called that studies what one important article calls “The Question of Transfer.”[do10]  Scholars in this area of writing and rhetoric seek to find the cognitive and rhetorical links, the proven reciprocity, between beginning writing courses and advanced “discipline-specific” courses that happen later in college.  Some important data about writing and “reflection” and reading and advanced critical thinking have been made. But these findings won’t get to the question that drives this essay—the relationship between outcomes and obtaining “future success.”

Christopher Gallagher, the scholar whose definition I cited earlier, makes an important case for rethinking “outcomes.”  Outcomes can become useful, he argues, not as end-statements but if they focus more on the means of individual learning connected to larger programmatic goals.  Gallagher’s article “The Trouble with Outcomes: Pragmatic Inquiry and Educational Aims” uses philosophical Pragmatism as his way into this critique of outcomes statements. But his suggestion that we focus not on outcomes but on “articulation” between individual and larger goals, while enormously important, again doesn’t satisfy the quest for “future success.” That’s because (?) outcomes assume that a future filled with success is known, attainable, and desirable.  Now I don’t mean to suggest that humanities scholars are nihilists who seek [do11] apocalyptic tomorrows.  Rather I want to suggest that one of the most important purposes for college humanities courses is to question what I or you or “we” mean by “future.”

Some of us are having trouble (or, more accurately are troubled) by “outcomes statements” not because we don’t know what we are learning, or can’t measure it, or don’t believe in it.  It’s because we don’t know what the “future” should be, or mean, or do.  We never really have. Anyone who has ever tried to document reality in writing, or tried to come back to reality after being undone by fiction, or attempted to make connections between self and society, and between history and experience, and between the forces of political and social construction and the potential of collaboration and innovation understands that “future success” needs not only to be accessed but analyzed.  Courses in reading and writing question versions of, and syllabi for, success, future, past, and present. And that sounds pretty difficult to measure (accurately and in a way that is standardized across courses, not only at an institutional level, but at the level of American undergraduate education).

In the last year, recognition that the outcomes culture of my profession—the academy—and my chosen subject of study—the humanities—may be ad odds, or at least at a crossroads, propelled me back to the classroom.  Not to teach or to make statements or even to critique, but to experience.  That is, to experience what it’s like to encounter the requirements of a course in writing and reading while living in this age of outcomes.  And so I am in my second semester as a student of English 111, the first semester of freshman composition required at the college where I normally teach.  There is a syllabus for this course, with the mandated outcomes statements.  So far, just past the mid-point of the term, the professor and most of us students, are living up to those outcomes. And our collective ability to do so has quelled some of my anxiety.  But it has also introduced a different worry.  What happens when reading and writing can conform to a recognizable version of a future?  I suppose that is the subject for the next freshman composition assignment.

[2]Some scholars suggest that “hard to pin down” skills of a liberal arts education is exactly what is needed in our rapidly changing economy and knowledge culture but these schools have not been successful in revealing this link, as compared, say, with STEM disciplines, to the public.  See for a discussion of the dilemma of the liberal arts college.

[3]Here are the learning goals for my fall 2013 English 111 course:

a) assess where each student is and wants to be as writers and readers

b) allow each student to be comfortable with and proficient in writing in response to academic and journalistic texts

c) allow each student to be comfortable with and proficient in writing academic and short-form web-based essays that cite other texts

d) allow each student to be comfortable with and proficient in researching and responding to academic and popular webtexts

e) allow each student to be comfortable with and proficient in understanding the appropriate rhetorical mode, audience, and language choices for writing tasks

f) create a community of writers where each class member engages respectfully and critically with each other and with course material. 

These goals correspond to the following goals created by the English Department at Lehman College. Students at the end of a 100-level writing course should be able to: compose a well-constructed essay that develops a clearly defined claim of interpretation which is supported by close textual reading; employ effective rhetorical strategies in order to persuasively present ideas and perspectives; utilize terminology, critical methods, and various lenses of interpretation in her/his writing; apply the rules of English grammar; adhere to the formatting and documenting conventions of our discipline.

 [do1]I like the introduction.  The meaning of life will be revealed in your class…

 [do2]Cue the dirge

 [do3]This is, perhaps, the central problem (and why faculty resent this “new” syllabi)

 [do4]Thanks for the source.  Will read.

 [do5]I’m interested in your use of “allow”…  how do you (or can you) grade “allow”?

 [do6]Ok, you are killing me.  Is it OK to put hyperlinks in a Word document? 

 [do7]Missing something?

 [do8]Are you deliberately staying out of this by not commenting?  Adding your thoughts?

 [do9]And that is one of the main arguments that is cited against this standardization of outcomes and assessments.  See, for example, those ubiquitous AACU rubrics.

 [do10]interesting, having spoken with the Dean about “transfer”… Well, she does not buy it.  Nope.  Especially if we use stuff like literature to teach writing.  So.

 [do11]Maybe they just “see” them…


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After Sabbatical: Beginning Again and Bob Dylan

Ten months of almost weekly chronicling what was my sabbatical felt like the right thing to do.  It had purpose: writing was to keep me on track. Since I had no place to be—no classroom, no archives in Europe or writer’s colony in New England–I would mark time by filling this space.


Things have changed. 

That’s the second half of one of my favorite recent-ish Bob Dylan lines.  Here’s the whole verse from the 2000 tune:

 People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed

On that note of acceptance and, in turn, an odd kind of optimism, I am updating this sabbatical blog.

Update: I am not on sabbatical. I am more than halfway through teaching three classes and, more notably, taking one.  So, it’s time to repurpose this writing project.

I will begin again by blogging about my adventures as a student of first-year comp. Most Fridays I can be found in Carman Hall 315 with the other twenty-one students in English 111, the first of two composition courses required at Lehman College. I sit in the far right row, closest to the door, third desk from the front. I take notes on my laptop in a space too tight for me and all my belongings—coffee cup, water bottle, purse, backpack, phone, jacket, sweater, gym bag. My things compete with my fellow students’ stuff: their books and ipads and phones and jackets and pens and arms and legs.  All of us sit at an angle, within sight but slightly out of range of the teacher’s gaze.

Scholarship–that is the reason I am subjecting myself to this strange experience of being a student at this time: mid-career, almost, probably, maybe mid-life. I want to write about what it’s like to  be a beginning writer in these complex times and I want to do that by researching composition classes.

Every week (or most weeks…I’ve been absent a few times) I engage in the practices required of beginning composition students—writing and reading tasks that are both infantalizing and, oddly optimistically, challenging.  Here are the two assignments I’ve completed so far:

–Descriptive Essay (of an influential teacher)

–Analytical Essay (of our experience as college students).

The first assignment inspired the article I am now finishing, “Freshman Composition and the Adjacent Possible.”  The second assignment had to be thesis-driven, an argument, about “anything to do with our experience in college.”  I decided to argue against the  “outcomes” culture of higher education (the move to make college courses adhere to unformed learning goals with assessable criteria). I explained how rubrics and outcomes are focused on what happens at the end of writing.  Most of the interesting thinking in a humanities course comes during the reading and writing and that, I argued “is hard to measure.”

The professor told me, rightly, that I didn’t “stick to that thesis.” I needed to really “figure out” where I stand on the issue.  Many of my classmates seemed to have that same problem–going in and out of conviction.  So I guess my revision will try to discover whether “I used to care but thing have changed” or “Things have changed. So it’s time to care.”

Stay tuned.



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Teaching and a Trip to the Gramsci Monument: August in The Bronx

When August 1st arrives, it’s always a shock.  But this August 1st bring something more than shock. It brings recognition: back to reality. Today marks the first day of my last month before sabbatical ends and I return, after a year off, to teaching.  So this blog will be step 1 in my re-entry–a way to merge the semester that’s approaching and the summer that’s fading. My three courses for fall 2013 are:

1.  Introduction to Writing, for beginning composition students at Lehman College, CUNY

2. The Novel, for advanced English majors at Lehman College, CUNY

3. The 1990s: Complexity Science, Cultural Studies, Composition, and A New Humanities for Ph.D. students at The Graduate Center, CUNY

In the past, I’ve structured each class as an idea, often phrased as a question, like “What is Writing?” or “What Does the Novel Mean in an Age of Computers?” This year, I am trying to structure the three classes to work as one. This shift in perspective is thanks to a sabbatical reading about a host of changes that were brewing in the 1990s–in science, technology, ideology, culture.  I see these shifts coming to a head today.  And so I am thinking about my research on the 1990s and my teaching in 2013 as connected to a larger theme, something about the relationship between being at the beginning and being advanced, between introductory ideas and complex systems, between personal identity and social politics.

A complicated relationship between past and present, novelty and the already existing, art and the everyday, is currently on display in an art installation in the Bronx: the Gramsci Monument,  sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation.You don’t need to know much about the Italian political philosopher for whom the monument is built (Antonio Gramsci, who wrote the Prison Notebooks while in jail) to be moved by this project. The artist is Thomas Hirschhorn but construction of the monument was a collaborative affair, worked on in conjunction with the residents of the Forest Houses housing project.  The “piece” (or pieces) of this project,  make up a mini-neighborhood, with an area for an open-mike, for children to do art projects, for the radio station, the newspaper, the library and cafe.


By visiting, as my family did last week, you participate in its mission.  That mission is laid out by the artist, Thomas Hirschhorn, in four points:

 Establish a new term of monument

 –Provoke encounters

 –Create an event

 –Think Gramsci today

The lessons of this space last well past the initial visit.  In viewing and participating, I became an expert and a beginner, a poseur and an intellectual, an artist and an accidental tourist all at once. The visit also helped me re-frame my return to teaching.  September is not a new beginning but a continuation of a construction project (art monument?) already in progress.

See you in class.

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Leaning In and Moving On: A Seat at the Writing Table

Like everyone other woman in a certain place in life, I am reading Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.  This is Sandberg’s manifesto on why feminism has stalled.  She argues that women don’t assert themselves enough, don’t demand “a seat at the table.” It’s a phrase that gets repeated like the chorus of a pop song.  “Lean In” has become a catchy truism.  It has taken up residence in my psyche before I’ve had the chance to question whether I want its accompanying baggage.

The table of her Lean In is in the corporate boardroom, where big things happen: risky ideas, influential connections, game-changing decisions. Sandberg describes how she is often the only woman seated at this table.  But in every arena women are not filling important leadership positions where risk and reward await because they don’t “lean in.” They don’t believe they can.  But they should.  We should.  Though obstacles have and will come along the way, Sandberg says the first step to getting ahead is to assume you should be there.

No doubt Sandberg was not thinking of English professors when she went looking for a cure to what ails women in the workforce. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of leaning in and whether there is a relationship between writing a book and “getting a seat” at the proverbial table.

Writing a book, like “leaning in” at work is risky, aggressive, and full of uncertainty.  You must insist that your characters–or in my case, cultural and literary events and ideas–matter.  In doing so, you insist that you matter.  That I matter.

That’s hard to do.  Writers don’t know if the work matters until the thing is finished and is read by others.  That is, if it gets read. So we have to believe in the ending even though we are at the beginning.

I’m reading Lean In while listening to music–a soundtrack that I wouldn’t, at first, deem a likely pairing for Sandberg’s treatise.   The CD of songs I have here is called  “My Last Mixed Tape” : “Alternative Music of the 1990s”.  

I got the CD–not a real mixed tape like from my adolescent angst days– at (deep breath) Starbucks.  I hereby swear that this was my first time buying music next to free samples of caramel macchiatos.  But the circumstances were trying. I had just finished giving a paper at an academic conference: twenty minutes talk time, twenty hours work load.  I spoke for a small crowd in a huge hotel that time forgot (the wallpaper was pre-mixed tape era).  Still dressed for winter–it was 40 degrees inside despite the desert climate– I found this Starbucks after a string of bikini shops and bars, and a futile search for green vegetables and shade.

The CD is full of those post Cold-War, pre-digital age anthems of emptiness and anxiety.  Radiohead’s “No Surprises” is here. So is Belle and Sebastian.  Nirvana is not here, but should be.  

The songs relate to the manuscript I am working on about writing and culture in the 1990s.  But they also tell us something about cultural and historical depictions of success, then and now.  Instead of the 2013 world of  “leaning In,” many culture makers of the 1990s– from academics like Bill Readings to artists like Sean Landers— were feeling tied down by a world that could not acknowledge or accommodate a diversity of identities, emotions or experiences. The CD seemed to say, circa 1993, “better to lean out.”

I grabbed the CD in an attempt to live in both of these worlds–the 1990s and today.  I wanted to go back in time, press pause on the insistent drive to power, reignite the ethos of grunge–serious and thoughtful critique from the margins.  But I also hoped that these songs would propel my writing project forward, back into the room and at the writing table of success. The package printed printed on the cover suggested this possibility.  It reads, “A mix tape can convey a mood or a theme…or it can be like this CD—a collection from the ‘90s heyday of mix tapes that you just gotta here.”

“Would this music speak to the mood or the theme of my book?” the 97 degree heat of Vegas had me asking.  Perhaps this compilation could tell me something that the intellectuals of the library stacks could not. Or at least tell me something about how we (or corporate) are mass-producing nostalgia for that decade, now that we are far from it.

I played the CD in the privacy of my hotel room of no view. Not bad, not great. Liz Phair and Pavement did offer a welcome way out of Vegas.  And, for a brief moment I leaned all the way into another geography, another generation, a familiar, if fuzzy picture of possibility.  There we are, my sister and brother in May 1993, 1994. It’s summer. Maybe.  We are sitting together.  I think.  We are in David’s tiny bedroom.  He is there.  The shades are down. And we are listening to “alternative.”

But just as I tried to capture that room and our places in it, they were gone. The mood yielded a moment in time and a spot in history.  But it did not make a book.

Turns out, even in Vegas, there is no one quick fix, no easy ticket to getting a seat at the table.  Sandberg would agree.  We need more than nostalgia or desire; we need hard work, confidence and a healthy dose of tolerance for risk to get our seat at the table.   

But that doesn’t tell the whole story of success either. At least not for writing.  Because a “seat at the table” assumes that this table is already there.  Our job is to go out there and sit right down. 

Only some businesses are filled with empty rooms that require setting a table of our own making.  A writer’s workplace is like this.  A writer has to lean into ideas so that they can exist and progress.  But she also needs to know when to get up and move on, when all of that forward moving misses the mark, losing what was once there, or bypassing what is right in front of us.  She needs to know when the table we sit at is either too desolate or too crowded or too popular: furnished by memory’s ghosts or with soundtracks already compiled by coffee shop chains. 

I’ve got no catch phrase, no refrain, for making this balancing act work.  Only this: though we may be stuck in the desert sometimes, let there be no cure in the quest for something, somewhere, alternative.

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Writing This, Not That: Conference Prep

Academic conferences were more exciting back in the 1990s.

There you have it.  Months of research and contemplation on the state of the humanities over the last thirty years, reading this about the “science wars” and this about the fate of writing at the end of the century.  All so that I can make the bold claim–commonly heard among the late thirty-something year old set–things were better back when.

Of course it wasn’t all better when. But that is the thing about research.  It complicates clichés and grand claims.  Big theses ideas are in vogue now (Tipping Point started that trend, Steven Johnson’s work may finish it). But conference papers, in all disciplines, tend to eschew the broad strokes in favor of a message, an emerging idea, an almost-true finding. The conference paper is that unique hybrid genre that is not really grand (books, films) but not so small (unpublished papers).  Conferences exist somewhere in “the adjacent possible” to use a term that Biologist Stuart Kauffman coined.

This post is about how I am avoiding preparing my own paper for an upcoming conference  by studying the history of academic conferences from 1992-2002.  Cultural studies and the culture wars, the creation of departments for and about writing, the invention of a science of “complexity”–these were all subjects cooked up at academic gatherings (and, also, in very long edited collections).

I am obsessed with conferences.  Except the one I have to go to.

One major difference between conferences then and now was a sense of urgency about the presentations.  The rhetoric of resolve and urgency pulsating through this work can be attributed to fierce debates about the future of the university, and virulent attacks against English departments in particular.  Humanities conferences and edited collections of the 1990s were gutsy and polemic.  You get the sense that whatever the topic was (identity politics or the canon or critical theory) it mattered.

It is strange to think of scholarship in last days before the digital age more “now” than what we get now.  When scholars gave “papers” back then they were, actually, on paper.  They had linear arguments, barely any visuals, were read aloud to audiences, printed in standard essay format.  They looked just like the conference papers and essays written a hundred years earlier.

But while these relics may appear outdated, they do not feel old and worn. See this cultural studies anthology or this anthology about writing and culture–examples of passion and position and personality.  The culture wars inspired these critical-polemical pieces.  Today our battles are more dispersed;  we are more inclined towards the “relational” than the oppositional.

Uncovering connections or “networks” in writing and cultural practices is important, and good work comes from this kind of scholarship (see this helpful, if tame new collection for example). We live in an age when the lines between matter and human, social and private are  blurred (See this explanation by Tiffany Shlain and this book by Jane Bennett.)

Yet something changed after the culture wars ended without a clear winner or loser.  The study of literature and writing lost its edge.  Books and ideas, writing and literature have been replaced by areas of culture that feel more real and true.  Food, for instance.

There are countless tomes on the relationship between food and culture.  But I think of the Eat This, Not That books as representative of the enthusiasm and confidence, the sense of urgency and import, that was once directed at texts.

I know that’s too simple.  My thesis–then we had books, now there are kale chips–does not account for the emerging new disciplines of the post-postculture-wars age.

One such discipline is Writing Studies.  It talks about being a field that studies how writing makes connections and relations.  But it is also a discipline that distinguishes as much as it relates.

In their recent  “plea for writing” Sidney I. Dobrin, J. A. Rice, and Michael Vastola explain that the field of Writing Studies is about “theorizing writing qua writing sans subject.”  They mean that the study of writing should not be about ways to teach writing, but about writing itself: “not bound by the canons, grammars, and rhetorics of pedagogy that have been naturalized as the methods though which writing is learned and performed.”

Writing Studies is this: subjectless.  It is not that: about the writer, the student, the process.

I have a follow-up question for this new writing diet. Does it work? Will it work to inspire the many coming to the upcoming composition and communication conference? Because conferences are outlier genres in the academy.  They hang out in the in between space of the academy, the boundary between being this and that: published and not, polished and process.  Will Writing Studies be able to straddle this fine line?

Time will tell (exactly two week of time).

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