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Wednesday, August 11, 2010


"Working" at home today: had vague plans to do various things, including possibly going in to the office (knowing that doing so increases my chances at productivity), but woke with a monster headache so have been doing more noodling than actual work. I started reading one of the books I've agreed to review--the one I'd forgotten: it arrived yesterday, and the review editor has put in a plea that I get the review done by 9/1, as other reviewers have dropped away and the fall issue is looking pitifully slender. I'll do my damndest: it's not a long book and is an easy read. However, since my brains are already starting to segue into thoughts of this semester's pedagogy, I find my mind keeps wandering off into vague musings about teaching, classes, how to approach material, what to assign.... None of this is leading to anything concrete just yet, but I realize how frequently I think about what to say to students, how to present ideas to them, musings I generally forget or lose focus on by the time I get into the classroom.

So today, I decided to write some of it down--very informally, and with no particular intent, except (as I will be sure to point out to students) that writing things down often helps make them more clear. Getting an idea into words clarifies it, but writing adds another layer to that process of clarification, as one can go back and re-read (and revise, of course, a not insignificant factor).

And rather than maunder on here, I'll insert what I was jotting down:

Myth 1: papers start with a thesis or outline. Bullshit. They start with ideas—and the ideas aren’t very clear at first.

Ideas can exist—sort of—without words, but an idea isn’t clear, to you or anyone else, until you’ve got it into the right words. How do you know if the words are right? You keep working at them, moving them around, making substitutions, until you feel pretty sure they capture what you’re getting at, and then you bounce them off an audience and see if the audience gets what you wanted to convey. If not, you go back and fuss around some more.

And ideas come from somewhere. Where do your ideas come from? What makes one idea “better” than another? What makes you listen to and respect someone else’s opinion? (Opinions are vastly overrated by students. Sure, you’re entitled to your opinion: I’m entitled not to give a crap about it unless you give me a good reason to.)

The cool thing about writing, as opposed to speaking, is that you can go back and rework, reword, refine until you get it right. Ever have the sense you wish you could erase something you just said? Ever have the experience of trying to work something out with a friend or family member and saying, “No, that’s not what I meant,” then trying to find another way to say what you wanted to say? That’s what writing is for.

Writing isn’t just what falls out of your head onto the page. I’m pretty fucking good at this, and anything that is going to be seen by anyone other than just me gets reworked (even e-mails and text messages). Anything I’m going to distribute publically, never mind professionally, gets extensively reworked—and often shown to colleagues first. I know you don’t want to be me, but in this case, really, trust that I have some knowledge and experience that you can benefit from.

Not to mention the fact that you can make a huge, I mean HUGE, difference to your grade by reworking.

However, if you start out worrying about getting it right, that’s a recipe for disaster. You need to start by just letting things fall out of your head and onto the page. You need to start by pulling together everything you know, or think, or guess, or wonder about on whatever the topic is. The “right” words come later. The “right” organization comes later.

You start by letting things fall out of your head, but you don’t STOP there. Or if you do, you get a crappy grade. Some of you may be skilled enough as writers, thinkers, that you can do a passable job with just what falls onto the page the first time out of the gate—but I will not be impressed. I did too much of that myself, and recognize it, and will demand more of you. I’ll challenge you to work your ass off, no matter how good you are coming in the door.

My job is to get you to think. Really, seriously think. It isn’t as easy as you might believe right now.

That's as far as I got. I may print that out to take in to the first day of classes with me--or not. The start of this semester is so stupid in terms of continuity, I am not at all sure how I want to deal with the first class--or even the first two weeks. I've even considered not assigning any reading at all until the third week, when I can demand that students have their textbooks--though honestly, I doubt I'll go that route: it's too important for them to get a sense early, rather than late, of the kind of reading they'll be doing.

Well, anyway. I'll continue fussing with ideas and chipping away at the actual work. Tomorrow I'll be in and out of the office, in between various (routine) medical appointments and the evening placement reading. I'm hoping that makes for a much more productive day. And pretty soon here I'll head off for this evening's reading.

Two student bloopers of the day:

1) Children are not allowed to be user friendly.

2) Nine times out of ten, majority rules.

Hard to argue with that second one.

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