For this first blog I’m taking on a few different seemingly random things from our readings. Their will be more continuity in my writing in my future posts…I promise.
Since last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lisa’s question(s) regarding how I’ve (we’ve all) managed to figure out how to write in literary, cultural, and/or filmic studies, and how this process relates to Joanna Wolfe’s topoi. So, since we didn’t get to blog about last week’s readings I figured I’d spend a little time this week tussling with this here at the beginning of this first blog post. The best I could come up with when pressed on this in last week’s class meeting is basically that I learned to write as an aspiring literary and cultural scholar through silent and insatiable observation, imitation, improvisation, and outright “winging it.” I know this has obviously worked (as we all do at the points we are all at in our academic trajectories). In my last semester as an undergraduate, Barrett Watten advised me on my honors thesis, and when he gave me back my first 26-page draft, he told me that it was already “graduate level writing.” So I know that, at least for many of us, observation, imitation, and improvisation are by all means effective strategies for learning to write for and in academia. In other words, based on my own experiences, elements of Wolfe’s argument for the need of the topoi she discusses aren't completely convincing. I'd hazard to suggest that it is exactly the less prescriptive strategies I mention above that allow more room for bold and distinct voices to develop and likewise bold and distinct perspectives.
But, thinking about teaching Literary and Cultural Studies (and perhaps even film at some point) adds another dimension to this conversation. I, like a number of us, definitely experienced a degree of skepticism—if not outright revulsion—to Wolfe’s topoi when I first read her article, and for most of the same reasons brought up in class. Part of me wonders, though, how much of that initial response was simply past instructors’ perspectives being so impressed in my own perspective that I reacted exactly how I could imagine them reacting (I really could picture a couple of particularly influential past instructors gnashing their teeth in my head as I read Wolfe’s article). As I read through Wolfe, and thought more and more about the process of finding my own footing as a composition instructor—and how this will inevitably lead to the first literature and culture course(s) I will be teaching—that initial skepticism changed into more of a kind of mild ambivalence. Now, a week later, thinking about how intimidating teaching my first literature and culture class will be, part of me thinks that I can very much picture utilizing Wolfe’s “special topoi”—at least at first. As much as I think I may take from and utilize Wolfe’s topoi though, as I eventually begin as an instructor of literature and culture, I can’t help but believe that the aforementioned observation, imitation, and improvisation which have seemed to work so well for me as I have found my way through the past decade of almost constant academic labor, are crucial approaches in their own right, and because of this, such potentially formulaic models such as Wolfe’s topoi will remain somewhat suspect to me.
As the explanatory bit beneath my blog title indicates, I came to academia late in life and—at least at first—unsure if it was going to be a good fit. I had/have been reading insatiably (and by no means merely fiction) and writing prolifically from ever since, so it’s not that I wasn’t about the reading, researching, and writing. I was just skeptical about all of the conformity, fatuous elitism (even though everyone around you paints themselves as the most aspiringly progressive individuals one will ever meet), “professionalization,” and—what I see as—myopia which I knew existed to some degree in academia. So, when I read in Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature about “Teacher-Centered Theories” of teaching (32), and “Teaching as Performance” (32), and about the instructor who talks about making herself into an “unlikely amalgam of the earnest and the hip” (16) and about how abandoning “her diva self” in the classroom “was like knowing [she'd] never do cocaine again” (16), it was not hard to initially view some of what we read in Showalter regarding approaches to teaching, as manifestations of the fact that some people seem to come to teaching for some of the same reasons people become cops—attention and power.
Unfair, I know. That was simply my initial response. It then made me think about the fact that, though I am by all means wholeheartedly devoted to my students and being the best instructor I can be, I did come to this later in life—it was not something I even thought about earlier (although I’ve repeatedly been told over the years that I would make a great teacher). For good or ill, I am who I am here at 43-years-of-age, irrevocably, and to think about trying to reinvent some identity to put on while I’m in front of classes is pitifully laughable. Whereas these other educators trying to refashion themselves as “divas” or as prestigious professors whose “gait on entry to [their] last word [is] all theatre” (15), are probably the kind of people who knew they wanted to do this from early on, and were already moving towards this when they were young—at which point in my own life I was wholly concerned with traveling, skateboarding, and living solely for the moment. Perhaps for people who come to teaching at younger ages, when their characters are not quite so etched in stone, all of this transformation and donning separate personas in the classroom makes more sense. I completely agree that teaching can be formidable and scary, and we all have to find our own ways of beating it. It seems like I realized right away though, that if I’m simply “myself,” I don’t have to stress my presence and execution in front of my classes and can instead just focus on my students and what I’m supposed to be teaching them. All of the above may be—as the old-timers like to say—a long way around the barn to simply say that “Teacher-Centered” theories of teaching with their focus “on what the teacher does” (33) seem kind of ridiculous to me.
It’s probably too early in the semester for me to already be exhibiting my bull-in-a-china-shop self, so I will here agree with the view that I have encountered that physicality can indeed be a big factor in how we each as instructors inhabit the spaces in which we teach and the social ecology of our classrooms, and that in this regard, issues of gender may in fact explain why some female instructors may aspire to something like academic…uh…diva-hood. No matter how much I ultimately acclimate myself to the academy, there will always be a little bit of "knucklehead" to me. I’m a big dude with a lot of tattoos who constantly walks through the aisles of the classrooms I'm fortunate enough to share with my students, and bumps desks with my hip when I catch students texting or on facebook, and who sits amongst the students at empty desks when in-class writings and group-work are occurring, so I understand when Showalter touches on how physicality, as it relates to issues of gender especially, can be a big part of how students react to each of us.
I’m already poaching—from our Owens reading—what I consider to be a great “procedural” idea for introducing assignments to my students, which I intend to use this week when introducing our second project (I already used it today actually). Which is OK, because Owens explains that he was kind of poaching it himself, and as Showalter writes: “One of the best aspects of the work of teaching is that, unlike scholarship, it does not have to be original to be good. We can borrow ideas and methods from our colleagues and our predecessors, dead or alive; we can imitate, copy, and plunder in the confidence that our students will benefit” (9). As Owens describes:
“…have students write briefly about their writing assignments when they are assigned — annotating the assignment, describing in their own words what they will have to do, writing questions they or others might have, and discussing their answers with one another and as a class…I have learned how easily students can misread what I think is a clear assignment and have seen how their questions can force a better project than I had been able to envision.”
I actually did this today. Part of my students’ homework for today was to read the directions for our Project Two. Right at the beginning of the class—before we did anything else—I had them all take out a pen and paper, and had them all give me a brief description in their own words of what they think they are supposed to be doing in Project Two, and then also include at least two questions they had about it. It worked really well, and greatly facilitated our initial conversation about this assignment. I plan on doing this from here on out actually.