To Discourse or to Talk?

Elbow’s essay,  “Reflections on Academic Discourse: How it Relates to Freshmen and Colleagues,” and Bartholomae’s essay, “Inventing the University,” at first appear to come at college writing from opposite sides of the field. For Bartholomae, the college class ought to teach academic discourse in the mode of communication that universities give students access to. Students must appropriate the language of the subject to better suit their writing, to learn the audience and manipulate them “or accommodate her motives to her reader’s expectations.” Whereas Elbow argues that writing classes should teach nonacademic writing, and by adopting a specific, high level discourse a writer is detaching from the audience. College is short and life is long. Plus,different subjects, such as history and psychoanalysis, use different types of jargon and modes of communication. So in that way, B and E are juxtaposed. However, Bartholomae is often referring to being an “insider,” which I think can fall in line with metacognition. According to Elbow, if students always use ordinary language, their own thinking about a discourse will come much easier, and they will be more frank, rather than trying to dazzle with unnecessary academic riffraff. Bartholomae wants students to be able to see any discourse, recognize it, and adapt to it, so that they can write well and communicate their ideas. So there is something similar in that idea of playing multiple roles through what we know.

The readings for me raise a few questions:

A first-year writing class ought to prepare a student for the subject they ultimately choose to major in, so why even teach it in a separate department? By that I mean, perhaps a student who knows they want to be a psychology major should have their first-year writing class with the psychology department. It may be true what Elbow says about life being long and college being short, but if a student’s profession is completely based on their major (e.g. psychology) isn’t that discourse and jargon something they will take with them throughout life? And by that I mean, is there really a “college” language? Aren’t academic journals separated by their subject matter? Engineering, American history, 19th century Russian literature? Perhaps then the first-year writing program should aim at helping students decide where they want to be within all the possible choices of discourse and how to quickly adapt to the vast assortment of them; and it should help them come to terms with this new thing in their life: college, scholarly articles, being an adult, being a member of politics and the world–which I think Emerson’s first-year writing program does.

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The Call to Write

For me, the call to write is a ghost.

“The Choices Writer’s Make”—more so, Jerald Walker’s essay on Michael Jackson, “Before Grief,” and also June Jordan’s essay “Nobody Mean More to Me than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan”—got me thinking: why do I write? What is the rhetorical situation of my fiction? For me, it’s different from a societal need. Not to pigeonhole the “rhetorical situation,” but it does tend to demonstrate that the reason to write ought to be based on a necessity of action. Action in the sense of external. What the people, or planet, needs. Michael Jackson dies, people wonder why they should care—they call him a freak show, they question his legacy—which compels Walker to write his essay, in a sort of defense. Sure, it’s not always a defense—someone might want to forward a new idea, like Jordan’s essay on Black English versus Standard English, because they foresee a benefit to interested parties, or they aspire to interest more parties. Still, in that, it seems to be a question of benefitting society. The exigence, often referred to in our literature, seems to be that of the external requirement.

That is not why I write fiction. However, there is a “rhetorical situation.” My need to write is far more physical, as I’m sure it was, in part, for Jordan and Walker. After the cop killed Willie Jordan’s brother, after Walker read a post about how his idol had been called a freak show, a deep, guttural necessity forced them to their notebook or computer. My reason for writing happens constantly, from that feeling. I’m walking down the street, I’m working in a preschool, I’m riding the train. I see something, I hear something, which creates something, which I can’t put my finger on yet. At night, it comes back to me: What is that? I hear it, I see it, that image, that moment. What do I do with it? Nothing for now. It’s hard for me to come to terms with it. Wait, there it is again. It’s clearer. It spurs other images, other ideas. Why do I write it down, though? What compels me to stop everything and put the words into a notebook, then bring the notebook to the computer? The answer is simple: whatever it is that’s creating the story is following me around like a haunting ghost. And I’m Whoopi Goldberg. The reluctant psychic, who ought to interpret it. Or else it might keep lingering. That’s the situation.

Train Tale

I got on a train last Wednesday. When it picked up speed, the headwind blew me. I fell on the dirt, but it’s all right because I wore my helmet.

With two broken legs, I headed for a bar. When I reached the bar, I used it as a cane to drag myself across the grass. I found another bar and decided to remove both my legs and use the bars instead. They couldn’t bend at the knees, which was all right, but I couldn’t sit down in the bar.

I stood at the counter and ordered a Scotch. When he came over, I couldn’t understand what he was saying because of his accent. I ended up with a new pair of shoes, but I wanted a beer. So I went behind the counter and poured myself one. I realized I was using the same glass as the guy across from me when I saw his dentures floating on the froth. Good thing too because I needed dentures. My teeth had fallen out after I’d fallen off the train.

The guy didn’t want me taking them. They were a gift from his nephew and sentimental. We decided to fight to the death over them. We tied ropes to the ceiling so that we could swing around. I used one of my bars, and he used my other bar. This gave me an advantage because I was a smaller target without legs. The bars clanged together, while we swung around. Before we knew it, each bar was broken at the center yet still one piece. I halted the fight. The guy had done me a favor. Now my bars had knees. I thanked him and presented him with the dentures. We both sat at the bar and shared a chocolate sundae. I told him about the train, and he called me a liar. No train ran near that town.

Beyond Cognition, From Silence to Words

Trimbur’s “Beyond Cognition” reminded me of my philosophy days. Lu’s essay, “From Silence to Words” reminded me of a memoir. Trimbur’s essay used multiple authors to prove a point; Lu used her own life and one guy’s epigraph on communal discourse to come to terms with her childhood and draw from it the positives. Lu starts her essay with the death of her mother, whereas Trimbur opens his essay with a problem, the inner/outer metaphor.

When I was a philosophy major, we often did what Trimbur did. We discussed philosophers, their theories and arguments, all for the sake of a final conclusion. Trimbur seems to have done that here. His mode was, in my opinion, argumentative. Despite how strong he made the argument of the inner/outer metaphor, he knew he was going switch gears. The metaphor itself reminded me of Kant’s phenomenal vs. noumenal plains of existence. I do see his point at the end about Bakhtin, about how much of our language derives from outside sources, various voices.

I don’t think they reached similar conclusions, though. I don’t exactly mean that. Maybe I misread one of their pieces. Lu’s essay had everything to do with dichotomy and homogeneity; Trimbur’s essay seemed to have to do with where we begin to write and egocentrism. They both would agree that the voices from the outside pervade our inner language. For Lu, the voices of school and home fought each other for greater territory. For Trimbur, the voices from the outside completely create our inner language, or so it would seem. Maybe I’m just not getting it, though. Also, Lu’s conclusion about communal discourse seemed to have more to do with opposing viewpoints, whereas Trimbur’s seemed to have to do with the creation of viewpoints in general and where to begin when writing.

Animal Party Basketball

 

Mrs. Hamster’s class goes outside for recess. Frogs and rabbits play hopscotch. Foxes and wolves play tag. Monkeys swing on monkey bars….

Cutie Mouse dribbles a basketball down the court. Suzy Cat plays defense. It’s a one on one game. They play for fun and don’t keep score. Cutie Mouse takes a jump shot. It hits off the rim. Suzy Cat catches the rebound with her tail. She goes up for a layup. Cutie Mouse blocks it with one of her giant ears. The ball bounces out of bounds. They both chase after it.

Talons stop the rolling basketball.

“Hello girls,” Scary Crow says.

Suzy Cat gasps. “Oh, no, it’s Scary Crow.”

Scary Crow clenches his talons. The basketball pops. The other critters that were having recess scream in fear.

Cutie Mouse, who has a black belt in karate, starts doing stretches.

“I don’t want any trouble,” she says.

“I’m not trouble,” Scary Crow says. “Trouble is my cousin—Trouble Goose.” He laughs—“Mwhahahaha”—and he spreads his wings and flies. He circles the girls before swooping down on his prey, catching Suzy Cat with his talons. “Mwhahahaha”—he laughs more.

“Help,” Suzy Cat says.

Scary Crow flies away, but Cutie Mouse chases after him.

Using the windows and ledges, Cutie Mouse hurries up to the roof of her school like a ninja. When she gets on the roof, she takes off her huge bow. She throws her bow in front of her and then bounces off of it, jumping so high she can reach Scary Crow.

Suzy Cat stretches her tail down as far as she can, and Cutie Mouse catches it. The extra weight jostles Scary Crow’s flight.

“What’s going on?” Scary Crow looks down and sees Cutie Mouse climbing up Suzy Cat’s tail. “Oh, no, you don’t.” Flapping his wings, he makes risky moves, trying to shake Cutie Mouse off. But it doesn’t work. He flies higher and higher.

Suzy Cat, scared of heights, closes her eyes. Cutie Mouse climbs onto her back. She takes hold of one of Scary Crow’s legs and says, “You won’t be eating either of us today, you big bully.”

“Sounds good to me.” Scary Crow caws before releasing Suzy Cat.

Suzy Cat grips Cutie Mouse’s leg with her tail. The two girls pull at Scary Crow, bringing him down with them.

“Then it looks like you’re going to my lair.” The trees of Dogwood Forrest are not far away. One of the tree’s, Scary Crow’s lair, has black and red leaves.

“No, we’re not going to your evil home,” Cutie Mouse says. She lets go.

Scary Crow caws and laughs. “Mwhahahaha.” He continues heading home, deciding he won.

The wind rushes by Suzy Cat and Cutie Mouse as they fall. Cutie Mouse hugs Suzy Cat, and by straightening her giant ears, she catches the wind. Like two parachutes, her ears glide them to safety.

The two girls land on the awning of a veggie store in Critter City. They walk back to school while munching carrots and celery.

Their class is heading in from recess. When they get back in their classroom, with its stump desks and hay barrel chairs, Mrs. Hamster asks them who won their basketball game.

“We tied,” Cutie Mouse says.

On My Teenage Essay Trauma

So I’m starting WR600: Teaching College Composition—learning about the writing practices of Emerson, primarily the the short essay genre, but other things too. Which gets me thinking about my old essay writing. Which was quite a traumatizing experience in high school for the exact reasons explained in Writers and Readers: Creating Meaningful Essays and Supportive Writing Communities. Back then, my essays were all about making a point, and that point tended to be something expected by the teacher, some preordained right answer, a matter of whether or not you actually read what you were supposed to read.

My high school history teacher, this short sixty-year-old woman who seemed to have a crush on me, taught our class an essay-writing rule that I’ve obeyed, to this day, like a marching order: A THESIS MUST BEGIN WITH THE WORD ALTHOUGH. As in, “Although the American Revolution seemed to be an uprising of the common man, the men in charge of state politics were the bourgeoisie of their time.” That way, you’d move through the paper from point to counterpoint, destroying the opposing side like a slow but steady war.

In college essays changed only in that I was writing either philosophy or English papers, many of which were a rehashing of what I’d already learned. I’d explain Plato’s position on Love and whether or not it could stand the pressure test of whatever rebuttals I could come up with; or I’d critically analyze Poe’s short story with the critical essays I’d been found in databases. Every essay, without fail, I use that although thesis. And it worked; grade-wise, at least. Despite it’s prescriptive model, it really did set up a well-rounded paper, where the counter to whatever I was arguing served a role that strengthened my overall conclusion. Like it says in Writers and Readers, even a structured essay model can be quite liberating. Although I still write thesis statements like I did in high school, there’s a lot of freedom in what kind of thesis I want to write; granted, in this class they’ll be propositions, so I wonder how those will be different.