The vehemence and viciousness of the health care debate and the onset of the academic year have colluded to raise my typical elevated levels of anxiety and tension to unknown heights.  Part of this concern is rooted in the foggy financial outlook: my vocation is threatened with extinction as my access to health care and my family’s security are both facing severe challenges.  It’s hard enough to be an under-employed, highly educated father; it’s worse when I am constantly reminded that many of my fellow citizens view my security and health as a liability, as a risk to what they perceive to be their freedoms. 

This underlying anxiety and frustration is sadly exacerbated by the viciousness of my brethren, my teachers-in-arms.  Perhaps viciousness is the wrong word.  Pettiness?  Cruelty?  I’m not sure the appropriate term, but the return of students to college campuses and the ugliness of public discourse have given my colleagues plenty of opportunity to display a stunning lack of sympathy for the very populations we are expected to help.

Illiteracy and Ignorance;Coping and Compassion

While I cannot speak for all teachers, I would venture that most of us still experience back-to-school jitters.  The nervous excitement of the impending new year so common to all of us from our schooldays memories continues to haunt and excite teachers.  Even though we relish the summer lull, I think most teachers anticipate the new school year, the excitement of interpreting an old routine for a new audience.  It’s exciting to meet new students, try our new lesson plans, and, yes, to be back in school, back in the hallways full of fresh young faces, the names and styles changing, but the experiences and desires and intelligences so very similar.  We may work long, hard hours and our rewards may be small, marginal and fleeting; but the joy of teaching is intoxicating and its high is most palpable around Labor Day.

Although teachers are idealistic to a fault, the return of the new academic year also opens the door for the cynical humunculous that sits nittering and chattering in our ears.  Teachers can be a nasty lot, full of vinegar brimming out of our frustrated hearts.  Much of this meanness is rooted in the legitimate frustrations teachers have with administrators, trustees, and communities.  We are asked to do incredible work for mediocre pay and are often have little power over the very communities which are dependent upon our abilities and our hard work.  While I cannot and will not address this frustration here, I want to be clear that I share these frustrations and am doing my part to improve the academic workplace.

My subject here is the negativity with which some teachers greet their students, especially students of varying skill levels and levels of engagement.  The excitement of the new semester is quickly tempered by the realization that our students are inadequately prepared for the work we expect them to complete.  While neither I nor any of my colleagues have had a fully illiterate student, it is not uncommon for students to lack basic critical thinking, reading and writing skills.  I am often shocked at the pathetic writing skills of my students. 

Perhaps more frustrating is the disregard students often have for required coursework.  In my Ethnic and American Studies courses I often grappled with students who clearly did not want to be in class and made their feelings visible through body language and, at times, open challenges of my qualifications or the importance of the material at hand.  I know this is a common frustration among my fellow teachers.  We know that material we teach is vital and we enjoy it; but we are met with aggressive, at times vicious disregard for the material and our classroom. 

I understand my many of my fellow teachers feel disheartened by their work.  I understand why many of us become cynical.  But what pains me is the easiness with which some teachers allow our frustrations and cynicism to boil over into contempt and nastiness for our students.  The return of the school year has brought the annual chorus of teachers lamenting the stupidity, meanness, and vileness of our students; the mockery of student writing or ideas; and the general dismissal of students’ needs. 

Like the rare full solar eclipse, this seasonal frustration has come into life just as the irregular, occasional vicious culture wars have come to dominate the political landscapes.  This blog was occasioned by my frustration with the level of discourse surrounding the debates over healthcare reform and I am generally disheartened and disgusted by the viciousness with which the extreme fringes of the right wing launch salvos in this latest culture war battle.  Within my frustrations with national discourses is a deeper disappointment with the retrograde  motion of our collective response to these larger cycles. 

In the past few days a number of friends have recommended an online album of pictures of anti-Government and anti-Obama protesters.  Posted on Facebook, the images are accessible only if you have a Facebook account.  I was able to find an example of the images and a link to the album, which is called “Morons Holding Signs.”  The images are troubling.  They are evidence of the violent and vicious paranoia that has long defined America and Americans, especially in regards to race and sexuality.  And, I think it is important that teachers, especially those of us in composition and American and Ethnic studies work to counter the viciousness and divisiveness of discourse of which these images are but symptoms.

Perhaps it was the simultaneity of this viral photo album and the return of the academic year, but my frustration with these images pales in comparison to my anger at the ways in which those around me have responded to them.  The appeal of these images has little to do with the viciousness of sentiments and everything to do with the ignorance and illiteracy of the expression of those sentiments.  Based on observing activity on Facebook, the general feedback to these images has been to laugh at and poke fun at the protesters.  Because the majority of the photos are of protesters holding signs with poor spelling, poorer grammar, and questionable grasp of basic literacy, most comments on the album ridicule the protesters are ignorant, stupid, uneducated, or simply moronic. 

Let me stress that I am deeply troubled by the sentiments presented by these images, just as I am troubled by the woeful preparation our students are given in High School.  But it is my firm conviction that we cannot counter the vicious and violent paranoia of our national culture and that we will fail as teachers if we respond to these frustrating circumstances with derision and mockery.  Laughing at our students writing may make us feel better in the short run; but it is evidence of an eroded trust and a shallow commitment on our part.  And making fun of illiterate protesters may sooth our anger at the direction of discourse; but it will only serve to drive us further and further away from the communities which we serve and for whom we must feel compassion.

Confession; Penance

Before I move on, let me confess that I am very guilty of the crimes I have just described.  I have been known to mock student writing.  I have been known to laugh at the beliefs of the fringes of our polity, both the r0ght-wing and left wing extremes.  I have given into laughter and bitching as coping mechanisms.  This essay is an attempt to correct a behavior in which I am fully implicated.  It’s confession and penance. 

Community and Compassion go to the Fair and the Banquet Hall

A few weeks ago I went with my family to the Wood County Fair, which is held just a few blocks from my house.  We went earlier in the day, before the rides and games had begun, and strolled the midway looking at farm animals and eating the satisfyingly unhealthy food available only at a country fair.  While I look forward to some parts of the fair–the milkshakes the local 4-H students make are great; I always like looking at goats and sheep–I usually do not enjoy myself.  I am very much a child of the sub/urban landscapes of Arlington, Virginia and I’d much rather walk along a city street than visit the barns and rides of a county fair.  I just don’t feel comfortable in such settings

This sense of displacement was heightened by the fact that at the very center of the fair grounds a vendor had set up his portable shop from which he sold car decorations.  The selection was mostly made up of stickers for car bumpers and truck windows; the vast majority were pro-gun, pro-rural, anti-urban, and anti-liberal.  The vendor’s trailer was easy to find because he had two large Confederate flags flying. 

(I won’t digress and follow the obvious tangent:why the hell would someone in Ohio, birthplace of Sherman, Sheridan and Grant, fly Confederate flags?). 

Simply understand that I felt very out of place and grumpy with the almost wholly-white crowd at the country fair.  This grumpiness was verging into anger when we sat down to rest on a bench underneath a small tree.  We were close to the goat barn and a small crowd was dispersing.  We had just missed the judging of goats raised by FFA students.  As we sat out of the heat, I noticed a young man, a boy really, no older than 12 or 13, who was walking out of the barn leading a goat.  The boy had one athletic shoes that looked a size or two too large; black jeans which had been hemmed and were cinched around his waist by an old belt; and a white dress shirt that was 10-12 years out of style.  He had a short buzz cut and carried a huge red ribbon in his hand.  He’d done well in the show; he hadn’t won first place, but he’d placed.  And when his family saw him and began cheering, he stood still as a huge smile came over his face.  Whatever his station in life, the poverty of his dress or the provincialism of his community, he had worked hard.  And his family’s pride in his success nearly made me cry. 

The last time I had that sensation was the summer I taught a class for BGSU’s Upward Bound program.  An intensive immersion into college life and academics, Upward Bound is a program for students from underrepresented groups, usually racial/ethnic minorities or people living below the poverty line, who have a chance of being first generation college students.  My students that summer were all students in Toledo Public Schools and all but two of them were African-American.  At the end of the summer we had a banquet with the parents, at which the students displayed examples of the work they had completed that summer.  One group of students had taken a journalism class and had made a small newspaper to demonstrate their writing and editorial skills.  I was showing the newspaper to my wife when one of my students came up with her parents.  The student was one of my favorites; a kind, hard-working, intelligent young woman who was both very large, though not particularly overweight, and unable to afford new clothes that adequately fit her frame.  Her brightness was often overshadowed by the meagerness of her circumstances and the other students discounted her as slow and poor.  That night at the banquet, dressed in her nicest clothes, she introduced me to her folks and then showed them her article in the newspaper.  And they were oh so proud of her.

The joy and pride her parents clearly felt at their daughter’s work and my students happiness in her parents’ praise were all echoed in the moment outside the goat barn.  In both cases, young people who were been born into poverty or near-poverty were given a chance to outshine their meager circumstances and their ill-fitting thrift-store clotes.  And their parents, who presumably couldn’t offer much, were so clearly proud of their child. 

In many ways, these two young people have little in common.  And, in many respects, they bear many of the faults that awaken cynicism in teachers.  And, while the social and cultural distance from rural Wood County to urban Toledo is far greater than the 20 geographic miles which seperate them, these two young people face the same economic challenges.  Their families and immediate communities are impacted by the same social and economic forces which affect all of Northwest Ohio.  And, in their moments of pride, these young people worked through similar paths.  Boththecounty fair and Upward Bound are government sponsored and supported programs and without the crucial work of the government neither of these kids would have had the same opportunities.

In both cases, it would be easy to dismiss these kids, to laugh at the paucity of their intellegence, their ignorance.  But in doing so, we simply prevent ourselves from feeling compassion for them.  And it is compassion that can help us see the commanility that cuts across our communities and find the grounds with which to reform our teaching and improve discourse. 

(Unfortunately, we see the differences between them and go on to encourage them to see each other as different.  And, while the subject of creating community through diversity training is a subject for another post, it is important to point outthat we ought to consider the ways we teach the histories of race and racialization impact our students.)

What troubles about the cynicism of so many teachers and the cynicism and nastiness of our current discourse is the fundamental lack of compassion, that we fail to see each other as members of one community.  I know the temptation to look around and presume I am surrounded by enemies and threats, to presume that my students come from Confederate flag-waving rural enclaves or failing urban schools.  But, ever if they do, I need to see within them the same humanity I ask them to see in me.  And, until teachers can have the patience to treat their students compassionately, we will be unable to teach our students the same values.

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The recession’s impact on higher education has been far and wide.  As state budgets crumble and personal savings are threatened, the funding for universities and colleges have been hit alongside a reorientation of student and faculty resources.  Like many of my fellow aspiring academics, job options have become fewer and further between while class-sizes and professional development funds have withered.  And so I find myself with a strong C.V. and only marginal employment.  I’ve gone from a comfortable non-tenure track position in an exciting department to working part-time in an equally exciting program.  While I couldn’t be happier with my teaching, I am frustrated by my professional station.  This frustration has been complicated as I’ve watched close friends and colleagues move on to greener pastures in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Texas.  It’s been challenging to tread water while cheering on those who swim away.  Or get in a boat and paddle away.  No, speed away.  In a rocket-shaped motor boat.  Made of gold.  Am I mixing metaphors?

Regretting Patrick Rothfuss

Watching my good friends’ recent successes pales in comparison to admiration and confusion that has marked rediscovering a friend with whom I had lost touch.  In the Spring I reconnected with Pat Rothfuss, a fellow I met in 2000 when we both entered the MA in Literature program in the English Department at Washington State University.  Pat came to the Palouse from central Wisconsin and was a site to behold.  A solid man of remarkable posture with a beard that was perpetually stuck between close-shaven and wizardly, Pat had spent years as an undergrad studying anything and everything that struck his fancy.  To be completely frank, I found him a bit puzzling and rather, well, geeky.  He was happy delving into the minutiae of the fantastical and the fey and in our first semester was enthused by a course on Alchemical and Hermetic traditions in Renaissance literature.  He saw no reason we couldn’t discuss Tolkien and other fantasist writers in our other seminars and I remember well a seminar in Early American Lit. and his excitement to talk about narratives of first contact through the fantastic.  And I, well I had come to grad school to study Hawthorne or John Barth, high on cultural theory and the power of the past.  Frankly, I was a little puffed up and failed to see that my own condescension to Pat’s interests masked my own arrogance.

There was also this: Pat brewed mead.  He didn’t drink, not that ever saw.  He wasn’t a teetotaler; I believe he just didn’t care much for alcohol.  But he certainly brewed mead and would happily fill empty wine bottles with his concoctions.  He gave me a bottle and I took it home to Virginia to share with my brother over the Christmas holidays.  It was rather good and I enjoyed drinking it.  I’d like to have a bottle now, in fact.  But I had never know a sober person who brewed their own alcohol, especially alcohol as archaic and Teutonic as mead.

There was also this: Pat wrote fantasty novels.  When we started grad school he proudly shared that he was working on a huge novel which he might break into a trilogy.  Of course, most of the folks in our graduate program had some creative aspirations.  I read awful poetry at open mic nights and toyed with an idea for a farcical historical novel.  But only Pat openly and confidently described himself as a novelist and only Pat comfortably embraced genre fiction.  Pat asked if I’d like to read his novel in progress and, in a decision that I have come to regret for its arrogance, meanness, and confidence, I told him no.  I did not think it would be worth my time because, after all, it was a fantasy novel.

This is not to say Pat and I were not friends.  In hindsight, he was one of the kindest people I knew in Pullman and I have many fond memories associated with him.  But we were not particularly close and we parted ways after graduation, when I returned to Virginia to teach and apply to Ph.D. programs and Pat went back to Wisconsin to teach and write. 

When we parted ways Pat he told me that a short excerpt from his novel had won a prize through the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest.  This minor detail popped into my head when we reconnected on Facebook this past Spring.  That prize had opened doors and Pat found an agent and a publisher.  And, upon checking out his Facebook page, I learned that the first volume in his trilogy, The Name of the Wind had made the New York Times best-seller list and had been praised by Ursula K. Le Guin, among others. 

I was, to be quite frank, flummoxed and confused.  “How the hell did Pat get on the Times best-seller list?” I asked myself.  “How did he get fancy blurbs and great reviews and legions of fans who come out to see him give readings?  And not just in the midwest, but across the nation and in Europe!?”  To be quite clear, I was and am very happy for Pat.  He is a kind, intellegent and funny man.  His success, though, was frustrating. 

I convinced myself that Pat had only done so well because he worked in genre fiction.  His book might be a great fantasy novel, but it surely isn’t that great. 

This summer I found myself in a book store and decided to buy a copy of The Name of the Wind.  As I was in the midst of another, longer book and couldn’t tackle it right away I passed it on to my wife.  She devoured it in four days and hectored me to read it as soon as possible.  I opened it on a Friday afternoon and by Sunday evening had finished.  And my lord, is it a good book.  It’s a finely told story with a rich sense of the traditions of heroic literature.  The narrative devices, the comedic and romantic devices, and the richly detailed and fully realized universe of the narrative reminded me books I have long loved, especially The Sot-Weed Factor and some of John Fowles novels, particularly The Magus and A Maggot.  I know little about fantasy or speculative fiction (outside of a childhood love of Star Wars) and so I cannot comment upon its place within those genres.  But it is easily one of the most enjoyable books I have read in years.

My respect for and pride in Pat’s accomplishments mask the discomfort and chagrin that have haunted me since I read his novel.  When we studied together I had discounted Pat’s ambitions.  While I had never openly mocked him I am sure that my disregard for his work was evident.  And, surely, his aspirations had been dismissed or mocked by countless friends, teachers, colleagues and acquanitances.  “How did Pat do it,” I asked myself.

Well, I can only assume he did it–that he continues doing it–through a combination of persistence and ego.  I recall now an autobiographical essay in which John Barth describes his years fresh out of grad school when he taught composition at Penn State and struggled to feed his growing family.  In those years he was surrounded by aspiring novelists, friends from Johns Hopkins and colleagues at Penn State, the majority of whom never made it as writers.  In accounting for his success and their failure Barth observes that he wasn’t better, smarter or more talented.  He simply wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote so more.  He kept at it and the persistence paid off.  [I ought to have a citation here, but I haven’t one.  If memoery serves, the essay is in either The Friday Book or Further Fridays.  Barth may make this observation in one of his later, autobigraphically-inclined novels.]

Pat wrote.  While most of our cohort, myself included, spent our weekends and some weeknights at the local tavern, Pat was at home writing.  And, I presume, he had the same steady work ethic before he came to the Palouse and when he returned to Wisconsin.  He was persistent.

And Pat had, and presumably still has, an ego.  I do not mean to say he is arrogant.  He is kind and convivial and forthcoming.  What I mean is that he had a clear sense of himself and his abilities.  When I dismissed his work I presume he shrugged it off.  He had faith in himself and his abilities and he persisted in his task.  My personal fondness for Pat and his novel have become shaded with a deep respect for his persistence and his ego.  I regret not getting to know him better and not reading early drafts of his novel when I had the chance.  I might have learned something about persistence and ego.  And, who knows, he might have named a wool merchant after me.

Complicating Persistence and Ego

I am lucky to have other models of persistence and ego, many within my own family.  My maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother both overcame childhood poverty through strong work-ethics and great faith in themselves.  My grandfather was one of six children born to an uneducated Irish-American bricklayer in Washington, D.C.  He went on to have a long career in the State Department and the U.S. Navy.  His brothers had equally succesful careers as members of the Jesuit order and and in the Foreign Service.  My grandmother was born in rural South Carolina and at a young age moved to North Carolina to work in a cotton mill.  She was a single-mother who raised six children, among them my father who left their mill house and became a respected administrator at D.C. are prep schools.  My grandfather and my grandmother had a firm sense of themselves, a strong ego, and were persistent in improving their lives.  My material comfort and my education are possible because of their persistence.

But, as they both raedily admit, my grandfather and grandmother did not simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  My grandfather had a supportive, caring family and a loving wife.  And, as he often pointed out to me, his education would have been impossible without the religious order that ran his parochial school or the encouragement and financial support of the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School and Georgetown University and its law school.  And, as a long-serving member of the Naval reserve, my grandfather had access to services and benefits given to veterans of the armed services.  Similarly, my grandmother has always pointed to the support offered by the owners of the mill at which she worked; the company provided affordable housing and offered support children of  millworkers who went on to college.  More importantly, my grandmother credits the spiritual and material supported offered to her by the Baptist church.  And although I never heard them acknowledge it, my grandparents benefitted from the historical and economic privileges of whiteness. 

Frank Brew was a persistent man with a strong, healthy ego.  At ninety years, Flossie Barbee is as strong-willed and proud as she was when she had to scrape together spare change to feed her children.  But those strong personal qualities were formed through social support.  They were products of their community.  And, from what I can gather from his novel and his website, Pat is earnest in his praise for all those who helped him in his path.

Persistence and Ego in the Composition Classroom

I have been thinking a lot about persistence and ego and their value within academia.  And while much of this consideration has focused on their impact on my own academic career, I would here like to offer a few thoughts on their place within the composition classroom. 

I am fortunate enough to work at a school where the students seem to be hard-working and curious.  In the first week of classes I was impressed with my students willingness to take on difficult tasks, to ask hard and toughtful questions, and their general good cheer throughout.  In this, I am fortunate.

While the primary mission of my class is to teach students the fundamental practices and processes of academic writing, I hope that I can infuse this work with a commitment to raising students’ senses of persistence and ego.  Why do these values matter?  In the immediate spaces of academic writing, it is important to teach students to persevere, to work through the challenges of writing and to employ constructively the criticism offered by me and their classmates.  The writing process is nothing more than persistence in the face of a composition.  Additionally, a healthy ego is important.  To become strong writers students must have faith in themselves and their skills.  And, they need to know their own weaknesses and learn how to work through them.

But outside the basic tasks of the writing, it strikes me that composition classrooms can be a space in which to form healthy work habits which will translate to persistence and ego in students personal and civic existences.  If my students learn to fail and then struggle onward with their essays, they can translate those skills to their lives and, hopefully, their communities.  And in developing a sense of their writerly egos they may develop a better sense of how the self operates within society and how crucial it can be for citizens to know themselves and have faith in themselves as citizens.

It is in this last point that the lessons of American and Ethnic Studies comes to bear on my composition classroom.  In addition to teaching students about the diversity of social and cultural experiences within and without the U.S., American and Ethnic Studies also teaches them to see how our existences are socially constructed.  American and Ethnic Studies (and, I ought to add, Women’s/Gender Studies) take seriously the elucidation of social location as central to individual experience.  While the composition classroom cannot focus on the histories and present states of justice and injustice, they can take the ethos of A/E/W/G studies and apply them to the way we teach writing.  By teaching students to see writing as part of larger processes and to teach students to work collectively, we may be able to help students have persistence and healthy egos, which can make them stronger citizens committed to building their communities.