Tuesday, December 11, 2018
December 11, 2018: Fall Semester Recaps: Writing I
[The final papers are coming in and the blue books have entered the building, so it must be the end of another semester. This week I’ll recap some inspiring moments from my Fall 2018 semester, and I’d love to hear some of yours in comments!]
On how deeply familiar texts can still sometimes evolve before our eyes.
As I mentioned in my Fall Preview post on the class, I’ve been teaching First-Year Writing I since my first semester at FSU, and have used fundamentally the same syllabus throughout that time. Of course it has evolved in various ways, but the core readings in the first two units in particular—personal essays and then short stories, both drawn from those respective Seagull Readers for that genre—have stayed remarkably static for these fourteen years. As I wrote in that preview post, I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel just for the sake of reinvention, not if something is working well as this class overall and these units and stories in particular continue to. But at the same time, it’s almost inevitable that readings I’ve taught in a dozen sections across thirteen years are going to start to feel a bit less fresh—not for the students, hopefully, for whom I hope they are generally new and compelling; but at least for the guy in the tie at the front of the room.
But if we teachers stay open, keep reading and talking about these texts in that fresh way that they are hopefully working for the students, then I believe we can still find inspiration in them—and I had two specific examples of that phenomenon this semester. In the personal essays unit, our last reading is Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman,” the opening chapter of her book The Woman Warrior (1976). Kingston’s dense and dark essay focuses a good deal on Chinese, Chinese American, and immigrant American identities, themselves topics that open up to many important 2018 issues and conversations. But this time around, in the era of #MeToo and Kavanaugh, I was struck in particular by how fully Kingston forces us to examine violence against women, across cultures and time periods and oceans. Her essay opens, “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you.’” But Kingston breaks that cycle of silence, sharing the story of her murdered aunt and of the hidden histories of misogynistic vitriol and violence that lie behind her aunt’s tragic life and death. Such stories desperately need telling and sharing, and Kingston’s essay took on even more significance for me in our current moment.
I had a parallel experience during the short story unit, this time courtesy of a wonderful student paper (source of many of my inspirations over these couple decades of teaching). The first story we read in that unit is Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966), a tale of a teenage girl, a predatory man, and 1960s popular culture (the story is dedicated to Bob Dylan, for example). There are lots of ways to read Oates’s male antagonist, Arnold Friend, but this student paper deployed the contemporary phrase “toxic masculinity” to great effect in analyzing Friend and his attitudes toward the story’s protagonist, Connie. The paper did two important things at the same time: offered a new and compelling way to read this story, one that added to my couple dozen prior readings of it; and reminded us that such cultural and social concepts are not new (even if the phrases to describe them have evolved), and that we have illustrations for them in literary and historical works across American history. And of course, it also reminded me that no matter how many times I’ve read a text or taught a class, each section and semester brings new students whose perspectives and work can and will continue to shape my own. Few lessons are more inspiring than that!
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Semester reflections you’d share?