Writing in The New Yorker in the New Year

I read the The New Yorker to find out what to read. I take my direction from the magazine’s always on-point book reviews. But Louis Menand’s December 20th review essay, about the dire state of the humanities, prompted me to write to The New Yorker and to write about writing.  Here is my letter about the role of composition in revitalizing the humanities, published in the January 24,2022 issue.

It’s winter in The Bronx and we’ve had a bit of a gloomy start to the new year. So here’s to this New Yorker looking ahead to spring (or at least to the spring semester), and to the writing classes that may help us turn the page on the past, and even compose a new chapter for 2022.

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Reading in Reverse: May Again

I read in reverse. Here are two examples:

Ocean Vuong’s poetic On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous got me through the endless month of pandemic March. But inexplicably I turned its mystery into my mania. “Magical realism in the outskirts of Hartford, CT…hmm…that’s maybe too…different.”  I went back to the prosaic after that. From The Atlantic I devoured then became deflated by an essay by Benjamin Taylor, excerpted from his book about being friends with Philip Roth. It demanded answers. “Why is this my new required reading? Still I pay  homage to the canon of a childhood deconstructed long ago…”

A few days later, my reflection.  The snark, that suspicion: it was you reading, not me.  Never trust men making pretend they’re authentic, right? Right? Please react so you can come back.

This month I tackle revision of chapter five of my book, The Composition Commons.  The chapter presents research on the reflective letter–letters students write about a finished piece of writing.  Familiar to many composition instructors trained in “process pedagogy,” today reflection has become an important tool for promoting self-assessment. In 2016, reflection was described as “critical” to a writer’s development, one of the “threshold concepts” for writing studies.

Reflection does make judgments and encourage progress. But my research reveals that reflection does more for reading than writing. Reflective letters uncover what was not written, what was not said, and what we might say now if time were different. It archives mourning.

What does it mean to mourn collectively as a class, in real time? That’s chapter five.

Inspired by scholar of reflection, Pat Belanoff

For David.

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Being A TryHard In An Era of FailBetters

I am a tryhard. A tryhard wants to fit in and stand out at the same time. They want to be noticed but not remembered. Being a tryhard can be exhausting and sometimes leads to serious regret. (See my class picture circa 1990, which I of course will not let you see. Please know that I have awoken to the brute truth that curly hair resists the bang.)

A tryhard does things slightly off-color enough…see my crazy-print tights!…but not too wild to stick–tattoo on my ankle…it’s washable!

I know I am a tryhard because my children told me so and then I worked hard at being good at that. When they told about my new identity, I laughed. “Yeeesss! So true” I nodded. Then I looked up tryhard. Now I am writing about being a tryhard (or am I analyzing why these half-formed minds think I am a tryhard?). Surely you’re convinced now.

Today, someone kind and smart, a fellow-educator with bang-appropriate hair, told me she read and shared one of my blogposts. At first, I tried hard not to look like I was trying hard not to be touched. But then I reread said post and figured something out: being a tryhard makes middle school and middle age exceptionally challenging. But it may make writing right.

Being a failure is in. We hear often–from self-help books to business manuals–that the secret to success is learning how to fail better. It’s not enough to accept mistake. We must embody it as a critical part of the process. No failure, no next find.

I am a writing teacher. So I’m all in with this new attention to error as inevitable, interesting, even generative.

But too much focus on potential benefits of failure can make us forget that the only way to get anywhere is being open to the process, to tryhard.

Writing isn’t really about mistake or mastery.  It’s about working to reach others, it’s about revision. We try hard to know if, and how, our words are working in other minds. And because we change and evolve, because we grow out our hair, we need to do this over and over again until we get it right.  For now.

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Visiting Day II: Revision and Expectation

“Visiting Day,” last week’s entry, was revised eight times. Eight times (8!) I returned to that short piece, tweaked and tightened until I forgot why I wrote it in the first place.

Long gone now, that first draft surprised me. It came quickly and made me momentarily joyful.  Sure, I stumbled a bit, back-peddling over names of places and people, making it unnecessarily mysterious.  (No one in the know says Lake Ellis; it’s “The Agam.”)

But still I took most of a dream and made it an essay, eulogy, love poem, memoir.

I admire the notepad-by-the-bed, napkin-in-the-purse kind of writers, the ones who pay attention without aggression. But I am not one of them. I write looking over my shoulder, fighting myself to the finish line. Except for that day.  For once, feeling was a muse and not muzzle.

Revision sometimes tricks us into wanting more.

We return to text to make it better: to find readers, to reach out, make our thinking clear and connect to others. But doing so sometimes sends us seeking too far afield.

As soon as I got feedback (imagined) from readers (imagined again) I wanted something from them and lost myself as a result.

The book I am working on is not about revision.  It’s about writing and what teaching writing does to our culture and the search for common ground. But I guess it’s also about how expectation is a kind of suffering.

Which leads me to freewriting. Freewriting is a technique, popularized by two of my teachers, Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff and used by many educators, to liberate the writer from the critic, the judge, the fantasy of an ideal reader and an ideal self. But it’s also a technique associated with suffering. Here’s a passage about freewriting from a collection of essays published nearly thirty years ago:

And, by now, as we lurch toward the end of the 1980s, even conservative teachers who were initially put off by the 1960s aura of the freewriting movement are likely to use freewriting techniques now and then, at least with students suffering from writing blocks.
–Burton Hatlen, “Projective Verse and Freewriting, or Do Charles Olson and Peter Elbow Have Something to Say to Each Other?” From Nothing Begins with N: New Investigations of Freewriting Eds. Pat Belanoff, Peter Elbow and Sheryl I. Fontaine, Southern Illinois Press: 1991.  

Scholars of writing debate if freewriting, and other process-oriented heuristics, can work in the educational structure we have now.  But the author of this essay does not ask if freewriting works. He asks if freewriting alleviates suffering.

I’m wondering if these associations–between writing and experiment and between students and suffering–died in the 1990s or if they mean something new now, as we lurch toward the 2020s.

More on that next time, as I spend the week trying to stave off another pain-staking revision.

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Visiting Day Again

A rite of passage followed me back to the city. Visiting Day at summer camp came and went. But I can’t let it go this time.

The day started out as it always does: we do what we’re supposed to do on Visiting Day, all the while holding our breaths until we inevitably find ourselves, reluctant but resigned, face to face with the still shores of my childhood.

Lake Eliis.

We stood there together, with the others, children and parents, families in tact. And we smiled for a picture because the background’s nice.  Then, sand burning our feet, it was time to go.

That was almost the end of it. An annual ritual of sadness and light.

Until I decided to stay on for one minute. And that’s when, I swear, I saw something like fog appear, slowly, tired almost, and translucent. The dead air rising.

I know it’s you David

I’m back at my desk now, books a familiar fortress of safety. Still though, I see that shadow. It’s saying something I don’t know how to believe yet. Which is to say I can’t write it down. Not till it takes shape. Right now it only resembles a reckoning.

The summer and sabbatical have sunk in. Thanks for joining me.





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When Composition and Literature Meet

March 15, 2019:

This is the brief talk I gave as part of a panel welcoming students accepted or wait-listed to The Graduate Center at CUNY.  Here I describe a class I’m teaching now, focused on the “academic novel” and that genre’s relationship to pedagogy, critical university studies, and, relevant to the audience of this crowd, making meaningful, transformative relationships at the university.


Because soon you’ll all soon sign up for classes, and because attending and teaching class is something we all have in common, I thought I’d tackle our topic by describing a course I’m teaching right now at the GC.

The class is called When Composition and Literature Meet: Critical Pedagogy and the Campus Novel.  First, let’s get something out of the way: “When Composition and Literature Meet” is a terrible title. But I chose it because, perhaps like you, I feel a special urgency about the fate of the university and its role in making meaningful, maybe healing, alliances.

“Meeting” implies something of a happenstance relationship and that certainly describes the tie that binds my two fields, composition and literary studies. You might say the two have met up for a series of bad dates in the hallways of English departments for over a century. Fraught with power plays and disappointment, literature and rhetoric keep connected because every so often we sense that maybe, this time, we’ll get it right. In the late 19C for example, before there was such a thing called “literary studies,” the upstart field of “English literature” deferred to departments of Rhetoric. But then criticism took off, close reading became cool, and composition was contained by the newly hip mansplainers of meaning. Critical theory’s rise and the canon’s fall offered conditions for common ground and the two kept talking through the end of the 20 C. But relations remained strained.

You’d think that today’s attacks on the humanities might move these fields from polite conversation to collective action. But unity proves elusive.

So my class is an experiment in trying to make composition and literature meet up without the hang-ups of this disciplinary history. The conceit of the course was that they meet up in the space of a particular genre: the campus novel. But week three of the term and already the books called my bluff.  The campus novel, like the campus itself, proves a poor host for renewing or creating authentic relationships. Romance, friendship, and camaraderie yield perpetual pain and paralysis for characters in Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down and John William’s Stoner and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty while isolation, competition and a war between creativity and conformity dominate plot points.

Still, we are loving these novels: we love wrestling free what’s good about the bad teaching moments depicted in them, love designing proposals for how we might do things differently from the conflicted characters of the classroom.  It’s an existential exercise, a meditation on the present, for us.  For we are only at the beginning of forming (or in my case, reforming) ourselves as scholars, students, and teachers and yet we show up, week after week, after a long day of teaching and otherwise working, to do this work of reconnecting broken characters and campuses.

So Composition and Literature are not meeting up. But we are. And that may be the best next thing.






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Private Pain, Public Humanities: Critical University Studies and Composition

This is the talk I gave at the Critical University Studies Friday Forum at The Graduate Center , CUNY on Friday October 20th.

I’ll open my talk with something participatory. If that’s upsetting to you (as it would be to me) I promise it will be over in 3 minutes. Going around are index cards where I’ll ask you to respond to a prompt I use to open every class I teach at Lehman.

Very briefly, describe the most recent thing you read or wrote—this could be the text you are sending right now, the Facebook post you are reading now, it doesn’t matter. What did that writing or that reading DO for you? Now please take one more minute to share this with someone sitting next to you.

Many of you do a version of this kind of active learning technique because you’re innovative teachers. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the pedagogies created out of the New York City Writing Project or Writing Across the Curriculum programs or critical teaching or digital humanities/digital rhetoric initiatives. I have learned almost everything about teaching from these interventions into university learning.

But let me start with full disclosure: the reason I do this sort of participatory, “flipped classroom” thing has embarrassingly little to do with a good pedagogy.

I do it to alleviate pain. I mean the radically, critically important moment of pain that comes from teaching—from that encounter with others. It’s the daily (or Tues, Thur, Fri for me) nervousness and energy that happen in the moments right before I step into the classroom, those moments of truth when I think “well, can I do it…again? Can I face them—will they face me?”

I’ve been having these moments of truth, these moments of pain and connection for nearly 20 years. If you’re just starting out as a teacher or about to become one, let me assure you:  it never gets easier.

But it does get more interesting. And more important. That is, if we believe, as I do, that “the great mistake” of our time is the privatization of higher learning. The “great mistake” is Chris Newfield’s phrase from his recent book The Great Mistake. Here he argues that the nation gave up its most essential resource—mass intelligence for a mass democracy—when it gave up on public higher education. He wants a return to investment in public higher education, with monies and with commitment. Here is one of his most eloquent and expansive definitions of the “great mistake” and his hope for public higher education to reclaim its place in the nation’s democratic ideals:

 We face many policy obstacles, but I found in my travels around the country that we face more fundamentally a loss of confidence and vision. I became most concerned about privatization as an ethos. To bend the term somewhat, I have been concerned about the weakened character of the collective practice of higher education that separates us emotionally and psychologically from the public vision of full participation in higher learning across all economic and racial groups.

Newfield’s book is forward looking. But the ideas buttressing it are as old as the humanities and certainly as old as the general education revolution of mid-twentieth century. He argues that “creativity” fueled the federal government’s financial commitment to mass higher education in the post World War II period and quotes from the famous 1945 Harvard report on general education, General Education in a Free Society, which ignited curricular reform across the country. The report saw universities as the beacon of democracy, in that they

reflect two characteristic facets of democracy: the one, its creativity, sprung from the self-trust of its members; the other, its exposure to discord and even to fundamental divergence of standards precisely because of this creativity, the source of its strength (my emphasis).

Creativity, discord, collectivity, and self-trust: these old, abstract humanistic values translated into real reform in the last century and can again. Indeed the general education curricular overhaul that Newfield celebrates served our department, English, quite well—increasing funding for scholarship in literary studies and encouraging unprecedented growth in research and majors.  It’s good to be reminded of this national interest in the humanities, in public higher education, and in English departments.

But today I want to remind us of another legacy of the mid-twentieth century general education curricular overhaul. The humanities’ boom was, often, composition’s bust. I don’t mean writing courses were cut. In fact, first year composition courses exploded in this period and required “basic writing” became nearly universal at the undergraduate level. I mean composition was cut off from this national vision of creativity—marginalized as preparatory courses for the real content that happens in theory or critique—anywhere but here. Literary studies and reading became synonymous with these “public good” values—creativity, collectivity, self-trust. And “basic” writing became the preparation for those values.

That too was a great mistake.

But we don’t have to repeat it. If Critical University Studies is going to embark on a new vision for higher education, if it’s going to be critical but also creative about public higher education, we at CUNY and, in particular, we writing scholars and teachers, might ask how our students could be part of the content of the new creative nation.

Which gets me back to the index cards that began this talk. I asked you to record semi-private moments of pain or uncertainty or simple acknowledgment of this moment, of our encounter. In my classes, these presentist, self-exposing moments happen every week, all semester until we’ve collected hundreds of them. For the final project students read through these cards, choose at least two from each student in the class, and then create a digital map, superimposing their reflections onto the official representations of the course—my syllabus, excerpts from the reading, passages from their writing.

This is just one step moving us from private pain to public good. I’m sure we can think of many others.

Thank you.


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Am I Good at Critical University Studies?

Is activist scholarship like all scholarship: meant to be judged?

I’m wondering because, thanks to my CUNY colleagues, more than ever I feel connected to the activist field of Critical University Studies. Critical University Studies aims to intervene in higher education and to critique neoliberal policies that hurt public colleges and universities.

Critical University Studies is activist. But it’s also becoming an academic subject, with scholars publishing and presenting their takes in traditional scholarly venues like conferences, books, journals.

Is this good for the Critical University Studies? For universities?

On Friday October 20, I presented at a “Critical University Studies’ roundtable with colleagues from The Graduate Center. I’ve written about Critical University Studies before. But this panel offered my colleagues and I the opportunity to unpack the idea and activity of critical university studies from our particular scholarly perspectives and our positions at CUNY.

Co-presenters Siraj Ahmed, Steve Brier, Kandice Chuh, Feisal Mohamed and moderator Eric Lott offered unique insights into Critical University Studies. I have amazing colleagues. They got me thinking about the globalization of universities, about the meaning of critique, about the history of CUNY.

But they also got me thinking about my own take on this field and my own performance on the panel. Did my paper work? Was it any good? Was it critical enough?

Well, it was a little short (I love short and sweet, but, alas, too short and sweet goes sour). It could have used more examples  (I have them, but they are boring). The activity I did needed contextualization (writing activities take time and dead time during talks is awkward). Etc, etc.

What was supposed to be a collaborative, critical, activist panel–and mostly was–morphed into a private evaluation.

Critical University Studies as Critique Upon the Self.

How did that happen?

Because we are trained as scholars and students to measure our success not in connection with others but in opposition to other ideas, positions, people.  And this constant assessment diverts us from the shared goals of Critical University Studies.

Critique is a good reminder of these goals; writing,teaching, activism are good enactments of them.



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Tomorrow We Revise: November 2016

Dear Readers,

Tomorrow my writing class meets. I can’t wait. I teach literature too and love wrestling with how reading works in our world.

But it’s a week into worry for what might happen to this country and to my college and university, an intellectual home for so many students who are new to this nation. And I realize I want to do more than read, more, even than mobilize. I want to workshop: to remake the present state of things. I want to be in a writing class.

Writing is not like literature or Political Science or Economics. You can’t cover it in one semester or century, can’t survey a period, movement or ideology of composition. Writing classes serve no master.

Which isn’t to say that they are free of constraint. Writing courses are always conforming to or resisting mandated standards that seek to measure, contain, and control language.   Literacy is never neutral.

We should research the relationship between access to writing classes and access to power as many of my colleagues have done. And we must read what could be in store for public higher education in the coming years and for immigrants, women, students of color, multilingual students, queer and questioning students, working students—my students–in the next presidential administration.

But let’s not stop there. Let’s get to class and see how these same students can compose this country anew, stitch it up and together.

Writing classes can do this work because they are workshops in revision, in re-seeing our place in the world and reaching out to find others.  They are places to connect.

We connect with readers we know, readers we seek, and, sometimes, readers we misunderstand.  In a writing class, misunderstanding means beginning again, finding new ways to reach back and out to each other.

Writing class meets again tomorrow. It can’t come soon enough. I will see my readers again. And they will see me.

And if we don’t connect tomorrow, we’ll try next week. And the week after and the one after that. Tomorrow we revise.

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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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