Tag Archives: teaching

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

—Louise Brooks

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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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