Teaching Against the Grain: In Defense of Reading About Food Politics in First-Year Composition

This morning the panel on a sustainable, or consumption-centered, curriculum in first-year composition made the Conference on College Composition and Communication for me, helped to clarify my thinking, and renewed my willingness to risk being wildly unpopular to support my highest values.

As a committed compositionist, I teach good writing, which extends far beyond good grammar into good thinking. Good critical thinking is inseparably connected with careful decision-making for both the self, the local, and the global.

To energize young scholars who have become passive, even complacent, about learning, reading, and writing, I created a rhetorical analysis assignment for a text about decision-making, tradition, and food, a text that was required summer reading for Duke’s class of 2015, and a text described by the university’s selection committee as “an evenhanded look at the food industry.” Subversive, certainly, but “evenhanded.”

In San Francisco, my students loved the text, citing it as their second-favorite reading of the semester after a provocative graphic memoir. At Concordia University Irvine, though, the text has made my students angry and antagonistic. “I hate reading this book,” a young woman declared in class on Wednesday. “I hate this author,” another young woman announced in the same class. “Why are we reading this?” another added. This book asks the reader to think about daily decisions and consciously and often uncomfortably engage with comfortable popular culture.

Studying food, an integral, essential aspect of our lives and culture(s), can help students become aware of unexamined aspects of their lives and aid them in developing a sense of agency when they realize that their choices have an impact. Our decisions–whether about food and consumption, or word choice and syntax–matter.

Our intellectual work matters.

Our lives matter.

Our voices matter.

Our writing matters.

That is why culture–and food is the common ground of all cultures–demands a place in composition courses focused on critical thinking and literacy. This is also why I both teach and live against the grain.

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What was the hardest part of the assignment?

“The hardest part was the conclusion. It never fails—the conclusion always leaves me in a bind. I hate it. I’m not good a shining new light on things.” 

—Student

Everyday

“I do not excuse myself with the usual escape of ‘not trying.’ I tried with all my heart.”

—Louise Brooks

   
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“What questions do you need answered before you submit your portofolio tomorrow?”

“Do I have to annotate all of the readings?”

“What percentage of our grade is the portfolio?”

“Are you a strict grader?”

“When will we get our papers back?”

“It’s hot. I have a headache. How many points is the portfolio?”

And…

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Oh, compliments are nice, too.

“Aptness to Edifie Another”

 One of the distinctive features of the American college has always been the idea that students have something to learn not only from their teachers but also from each other. That idea of lateral learning originates from the Puritan conception of the gathered church, in which the criterion for membership was the candidate’s “aptness to edifie another.” The idea persists to this day in the question that every admissions officer in every selective college is supposed to ask of every applicant: “What would this candidate bring to the class?” It under­lies the opinion by Justice Lewis Powell in the landmark case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), in which the Supreme Court ruled that considering a candidate’s race is constitutional for the purpose of ensuring “the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views” among students from different backgrounds. Those are modern reformulations of the ancient (by American standards) view that a college, no less than a church, exists fundamentally as what one scholar of Puritanism calls the “interaction of consciences.”

— Andrew Delbanco, “College at Risk

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For pennies and the love of teaching

“Here’s the dirty big secret of American higher education: It is being financed by thousands of underemployed adjunct faculty who work only for pennies and the love of teaching.”

—Claudia Dreifus

How our students respond to us—and by extension, to our subject matter—depends largely on the quality of the performance we give in class, day in and day out. Want to engage your students, capture their interest, motivate them to do more and be more? Then pay attention to voice inflection and body language, just as an actor would. Practice your timing. Play to your audience. Inject some humor. Entertain.

Rob Jenkins, “A Philosophy of Teaching

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“I Bought Surfing Lessons”

“I took your advice and bought surfing lessons,” my friend Paul told our professor, Dr. Sugie Goen-Salter, and the fourteen first-semester teachers in our Monday-night course called ENG 718: Supervised Teaching Experience. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to surf.”

Two weeks earlier Dr. Goen-Salter had given our class one of the most arduous assignments of my academic career. “Write down when you’re open and closed,” she said. “Report back next week.”

Two weeks into my first semester teaching at San Francisco State University, I found myself fixated on my twenty students, all of whom were bright, 18-year-old Californians transitioning from high school into the academy. As I prepared to stand confidently in front of their sharp stares and minds at 8 a.m. each class session, I read and reread and planned dozens of lessons I would not have time to teach. Even as I put my head on my pillow each night, I found myself open and rethinking the next morning’s lesson. I am always open. I thought. When can I be closed?

Monday evening moved in as quickly as the San Franciscan fog. “Who wants to share their open and closed hours?” Dr. Goen-Salter asked. Several heads hung down before mine drooped down.

“Well,” Rebecca said as she cleared her throat. “I’m having a tough time.” She spoke about the situation we were all in—the incessant planning and the long hours. We were all learning that teaching composition and caring about our students as writers and as human beings was deeply fulfilling yet taxing and tiring.

Sympathetically, Dr. Goen-Salter said, “Composition is an intense field and it will consume you to the extent that you let it. We could spend forty hours each week planning one class.” My colleagues and I laughed with relief. In addition to coursework as full-time graduate students, we were spending thirty or thirty-five hour each week on our first-year composition courses but surely not forty.

“It’s important that good teachers stay teachers,” she continued. “You need to know when you’re open and when you’re closed, so that you don’t burn out in five years. You need a life outside of school. If you have family, friends, or a spiritual practice that is important to you, you need to make time for it.”

The truth in her statement shook me like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Teaching student-writers is the finest career for an ever-curious lover of learning and language like me. Since I knew I didn’t want to be defeated in one semester or in five years, I knew I had to learn how to nurture myself as teacher, writer, and human being. If I pour into my students each day and care deeply about their academic and personal successes, I knew I must care deeply for myself, too, by taking time to restore my well-being as both an academic and as a happy, healthy woman who enjoys making meals for loved ones, moving in exercise and play, taking photographs, and listening to the stories in modern folk music.

“If you have to, schedule time for yourself,” Dr. Goen-Salter said. And I did, putting concerts and Skype dates and dinners on my iCal. When she came to observe my class the next month, I was rejuvenated and ready. After the observation, she told me, “If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t be able to tell that you’re a first-semester teacher.”

I was fortunate to learn this lesson in my first semester teaching from a woman who not only taught me about integrated reading and writing but how to thrive as a compositionist. Now, as I prepare to return to Orange County, I vow to be a teacher as wholehearted as Dr. Goen-Salter. When I’m not teaching and mentoring student-writers, I plan to rollerblade on the boardwalk and play in the Pacific Ocean. And I think I, too, will finally learn to surf.

Note: I wrote this piece (still a draft) in response to a job application that asked for a short essay that discusses advice I received from another instructor or colleague and explains how it shaped my professional life.

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Not Satisfied

“To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again and once more, and over and over. It is to ring changes, not repeat, not fall onto a dead center.”

—John Hersey, American writer and journalist

Coming Out

After they shared their first-time stories, I came out to my students today.

One student shared about a friend tattooing an emblematic sad face on his quadricep. The experience was horrible. Another shared about her first season of basketball, as a short young lady, getting towered over by the other players. She got better. Another shared about writing her first screenplay. She looks back on it in horror. And another shared about a round of golf in which she hit her dad in the head. She probably won’t play again.

“We always remember our first time,” I told them, “and I will always remember you. You are my first class of students.”