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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.” 



“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?”



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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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

Schenck’s Advice

I found this in the comments of an Insider Higher Ed article:

Try to create and to foster in the classroom a big, free, open, safe, secure space. Invite students to be honest and to write the truths of their own life experience as they have lived it and know it. Offer correction and criticism only privately in pencil on their printouts. Encourage student authors to permit distribution of copies of their papers in class and to read them aloud as classmates follow along; or to permit you, the teacher, to read them aloud. Read them well, the very best you can, and make them sound really good! In class discussion insist students abide by elementary rules of parliamentary order—never interrupt, raise a hand to be acknowledged, address the moderator only (never another speaker), be silent and attentive until acknowledged by the moderator, be reasonable. In class discuss issues, themes, ideas, language, viewpoints (not rhetoric, grammar, usage, or mechanics). Build confidence, always, and foster truth-telling, always. Insist on data entry; make students correct, edit, and resubmit. Help them express their thoughts and feelings but don’t contend with them. Let students decide what they want to say and do everything you can to help them say it so others understand. Praise courage, honesty, and truth. Ask why, why, why, why, why. Engage students intellectually, make them think, pull their thinking up, and everything else will come up along with it.

You’ll be amazed at the results.

—Bob Schenck

Turning off KFKD


Let it be my prayer, oh Lord:

“Please help me get out of the way so I can write what needs to be written.”

—Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life