Saturday, February 24, 2007

Missing out on the carnival

I haven't blogged or even read blogs for a few weeks, only to find out today that I have been missing out on a Trimbur Carnival, a discussion of John Trimbur's article in Composition Studies. Because my blog really is a ten-a-day sort of activity, I haven't bothered to go re-read that piece. Instead, I am going to use this prompt to think aloud about Call to Write, Trimbur's textbook, the one he more or less "defends" in that article.

Our first-year writing program has used that text for three years now, but it has never sat well with our long-term lecturers, and our grad students are always slow to appreciate it, if they ever get to the stage of appreciation. Those of us with PhDs in writing studies generally like it; it speaks our language, we aren't bothered by the lack of literary content, and the organization of the text makes sense to us. Some people seem to think the text speaks down to students (Trimbur deals with "composing a shopping list" problem in his article); others think the text is too complex.

Here is what I really want to think aloud about, though. We surveyed students in our first-semester writing course; we got just over 100 returns from those who used Call to Write plus a supplement of the instructor's choice, and just over 100 returns from those students who used texts that are definitely NOT rhetorics, Thinking for YOurself and The Sundance Reader. Students were luke warm about CTW, although they acknowledged that it helped them in various ways. Students generally liked the other two texts, although one students said the he / she thought CTW would be more informational, but these two texts (TFY and SR) were fun and easy to read.

If CTW exemplifies a "meta" approach to writing courses, an approach that wants students to understand writing, and not just produce writing, the students generally seem to find this goal a bit baffling. One student even said that CTW might be a good book for graduate students, but not first-year students. If TFY and SR represent a more familiar and transparent approach to teaching critical thinking and writing, students seem to enjoy the familiarity, ease, and humor. (Maybe one of the problems with CTW is that it is humorless?). As WPA, do I want to administer a popular and fun program, a rigorous and meta-program, some combination of the above, something all together. Or does this little survey--small and flawed as it is--just exemplify a problem that the philosophical / theoretical issues simply doesn't address--writing courses are still taught by those who received or would like to receive graduate degrees in literary studies; those instructors are most comfortable assigning readings and talking about themes, those instructors do not think writing courses should be about writing, because they often think that the writing should be transparent, and the transcendental themes illuminated.

Okay, my tone is slipping here, but that seems to be the heart of the issue for me: Trimbur can convince me and many of us in our discipline that writing courses should be about writing, not just do writing, but he and I cannot convince the many instructors of first-year writing, nor the many students of first-year writing, that it should be about writing.

As one students said, the course should be about poetry.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The philosopher's (curling) stone

My best friend from high school, Graham Freeman, is one of the best curlers in Manitoba. He is currently playing in the Safeway Selectplaydowns (do bloggers get paid for produce placement?), although he lost to former World Champion Jeff Stoughton this morning.

For a couple of years now, I have been planning a documentary about Graham, and, well, me--a MyStory of sorts, a buddy story (ironically, to be sure), but also a piece of cultural analysis, and, uh, maybe some philosophizing. Hence, the philosopher's (curling) stone. The way I see it, we were best friends who left high school and took very different paths. Graham stayed in Virden, works in the grocery store by day, is a Super Curler for about 5 months of the year, got married to one of the two young women we mixed curled with while in Grade 12, has a couple of kids (one named Brooks!), and although also an excellent golfer, he plays the grand old game more recreationally because of the high demands of being a Super Curler in winter.

I left high school, got a degree, got married, got another degree, got divorced, got another degree, got married again, moved around, had a kid, more or less gave up curling, golf, and every other sport I played and loved as a kid and young adult, got a job just across the border from Manitoba, got tenure, get to meet a lot of really smart and interesting people, started curling again (but not Super Curling), and now I find myself asking not, "who has the better life," but, "how does one evaluate "quality of life?" There was no way I could have stayed in my home town and done what Graham has done, in part because I was never that good of a curler, but in part, some weird life trajectory had already made that impossible by about the time I was 12.

I'm getting a little too discursive here, so let me just throw out some ideas, and if anybody who reads this has comments and suggestions, let me know. I think I will need a good push or two to actually follow through with this film project, but next year is probably the right year to do it.

1. Curling is a strangely gripping sport, and I am interested in trying to figure out how it grips people. The movie "Men With Brooms" provides some "Bull Durham" like philosophizing on this topic, but I would want to hear what Graham has to say, and I would like to figure out what I think about this topic.

2. Curling is a strangely Canadian sport--albeit brought to Canada but Scottish settlers. Curling culture in Canada is pretty well documented, so the question becomes: why isn't it apart of North Dakota culture? All of the natural conditions that make curling viable in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where the sport has the greatest grassroots support, are also found in North Dakota. ND was not settled by the Scottish, which will be part of the explanation, but the modern Scandanavians are great curlers--why not their ND cousins? What can be learned about the mysterious effect of the 49th parallel by studying curling in ND in MB, by comparing Graham's life on the Manitoba Curling Tour (2005 champ, 2006 runner up) and my life in Monday night men's league play?

3. What does it mean to "stay competitive" much of one's life? What does it mean to one's life to interact with the world's best in something / anything? Graham gets to curl against world class competition regularly, in a really black-and-white kind of way (win or lose). I have had the good fortune to meet a number of people who are among the most knowledgeable in the world in their various academic fields or sub-fields. I always claim to know more about the history of writing instruction in western canadian universities than any other person in the world, but then, there ain't much competition for that title. I figure I might be a top 100 McLuhan scholar by now--slightly stiffer competition, but still pretty small field.

Those are 3 "stones" to philosophize about--I suppose I could think of the project in eight parts (eight stones). Graham's thoughts, my thoughts, two teams, head to head, but in a totally sportsmanlike, male bonding, kinda way. I also see next year as the year because the World Curling Championship will be in Grand Forks, ND. While neither one of us are likely to be competing in that event, we could meet there. The narrative arch of the documentary could follow both of us through a season, him on his MCT, me in the Monday league. I have considered "getting competitive" for that year, but I am not sure that would make for a better film or not. Maybe I could do both, and see what makes for the better storyline.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Readings for FYC

My students are wrapping up the first unit in English 120, and it dawned on me that the unit could benefit from stronger readings. I did ask students to read "Students Have the Power to Lead," but as a piece of non-fiction and high-density information, that chapter never starts any fires. I probably need to do a better job of selling and teaching that chapter if I continue to use it. I have also been thinking about adding a good reading or two about money and the meaning of life. I am trying to get students to profile each other, and I think some stronger readings on money and the meaning of life might help them ask better questions and work on incorporting secondary sources. I bought a collection of essays that I should definitely consult, and maybe compile a casebook / course pack.

As we move into unit 2, I am realizing that using White Like Me might not be the best way to go. I should probably have students read a few of Tim Wise's commentaries, read excerpts from a few of the other books I have started to assemble, and show a few of the short films I have started to collect. Working with this kind of casebook approach, students would have more context for rhetorically analyzing Wise or other authors, and they might see that there is a context for thinking about "whiteness." Assembling these two sets of readings into casebooks might be a good model for students as we move into more independent reading and research projects for the remaining assignments.

On a completely different note, I have more or less wrapped up and sent out two articles in the last 5 days--feels good!!! Of course the reader-reports might hurt.... I'll be sure to blog about my next project--the encouragement I have received from the 4 people who read this thing was surprisingly, well, encouraging.