Friday, January 14, 2011

What "Text" Do You Teach?

This semester, I'm teaching Freshman Writing for the first time at my "new" institution; I've taught the class before at other places, but as anyone who has taught the "same" class at different schools knows, it's never the same. New requirements, new textbook, new guidelines, and thus, a new class. I also know that I have a lot of students who took my Developmental English class with me signed up for the class, so I want to make sure I keep things fresh, so to speak, for them. I chose an entirely new and different textbook for my class (we have to choose one, out of an approved list of three); usually, I chose a textbook that has lots of readings and I focus on teaching the writing part. This time, I chose a textbook that exclusively focuses on the writing (and critically reading) part, but is light on texts provided as examples and for students to "practice" on. I selected Everything's an Argument (searching for the link for this book, I just noticed that there is an edition with readings; that's not the one we're using, for whatever reason).

The idea was that this would provide me with more freedom to allow students to find their own readings, encouraging them to take ownership of their education, engaging them in critical research activities, and providing materials that they themselves are interested in. Or force me to do so. I will be looking for my own texts to provide for them, in order to make sure that they are being challenged in their work and in their thinking. I'm also thinking that their final assignment might be to critically "read" and critique the argument in anything of their choosing, reality TV, sports, a novel, the healthcare debate, a video game, whatever they want. This could be controversial.

The issue, for me, comes down to this: is a Freshman Writing class supposed to prepare students for college writing (and reading), or is it to prepare students more broadly for the challenges and reality they will be facing after they leave the university? If my only job is to prepare them for college writing, then asking the students to write about "texts" that aren't written is a mistake; as many have already pointed out, the university is not the center for curricular innovation. We like our textbooks, we like our academic essays, and we don't really like all of these trendy topics (like media studies or digital humanities) encroaching on our turf of the classic liberal arts. I'm, of course, not speaking for everyone, but for many, dare I say, most, I should be teaching "the classics" over Jersey Shore.

That's an argument that holds a lot of power for me. I think that part of higher education is being exposed to (read: being forced to read and examine) texts that we probably would never have picked up on our own, and for today's student, that usually means anything written over 20 years ago that doesn't involve a vampire or wizard. I'm being glib, but how many students really enjoyed reading Shakespeare in high school or picked up a copy of Plato's Republic for the fun of it? I know they're out there, but they are not in my classes. If we, collectively, in higher education, don't expose students to the wealth of knowledge and the richness of the written word, who will? It isn't just requiring that the students read the works, it's also providing them with the skills to be able to appreciate the work, engaging them in a way that makes the experience meaningful.

This is where I think pop culture can come into play. The "classics" are always concerned about human behavior, for better or for worse; pop culture just seems to exaggerate those arguments writ large. For example, when talking about manly nihilism, we discussed both Nietzsche and Fight Club. If we want to talk about social mobility and empty materialism, then why not talk about The Death of Ivan Illyich as well as our current obsession with game shows and give-aways? Afraid of run-away technology? So have authors as far back as Rousseau, but most "recent" examples can be found in dystopian fiction. These are just a few examples, and I'm sure you probably have better ones (please, share, that's what the comments are for).

And to say that the works and authors who are generally understood as being a part of the Canon didn't concern themselves with base interests or popular culture, then what were they writing about when they critiqued religion and religious practices, the popular playwrites, poets, and musicians of the time, or the morality of the population in general? What is popular has certainly changed, but our need to analyze and understand it has not.

I think critical thinking is critical thinking. I think that students are too passive in their consumption of all media: written, visual, aural, etc. It used to be that only those who were in a position of power or affluence could afford to engage in such activities. No more. If we can get students to critically "read" the texts they usually only consume for enjoyment and entertainment, then we can also get them thinking critically about their discipline, their education, and whatever it is we have asked them to read/consume for school. If they can write a well-organized, well-thought out, well-researched, clearly argued essay about reality TV, then I think it's safe to say that we've done our job of preparing them for college writing and beyond.

(For a great example of critically "reading" a show, check out "Should We Watch 'Bridalplasty'?" I love how the author shines the light back onto the viewer; the show is really informative about what it says about society, but we have to be willing to go an extra, self-critical step)


  1. I like thinking about the questions you've asked here. I can simply say that I am a pop culture junkie. I use those wonderful movie and TV illustrations on a regular basis in the classroom and out. As for the classics, I've often felt guilty about how much I despise so many of them. I think a lot of Gen Xers feel the same way let alone the current generation of college freshman. I can get into some Greek here and there. I like what Shakespeare means but reading him? And don't get me started on 19th Century British literature. I'm the academic who won't touch Jane Austen unless you include the zombie mayhem. Sorry! Then again I was never a lit major. I do history, so context is more important with those creative masters than understanding all the symbolism like I was some Garrison Keilor. So introduce the classics sure, but if this course is just about writing you are under no obligation to analyze 16th century plays all year. Students will be way more engaged if they care about the topic right? Great post.

  2. A speaker once praised her mentor by saying he 'used Classics to back into everything else' and that's exactly what I tried to do. So the lessons of gender in the ancient world -- active/passive sexuality, for instance -- became much more interesting if applied to Rihanna and Ke$ha songs. In my 'Classics' designated classes I taught Kevin Smith movies, Lone Star, standup comedy of every stripe...I genuinely believe in the utility of history, so I can't do the 'history in a vacuum' thing anymore. It's not good for the students or the teachers.


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