Writing About Boredom, Or Writing About Writing

Boredom is not merely a symptom of existential despair, nausea, and ennui.  It’s a predicament that writing teachers negotiate with students in the classroom… But how so?  No, this is not a jaded complaint about illiteracy and students not meeting the proverbial educational mark, being underprepared for student learning outcomes and so forth.  It has more to do with how we as writing teachers bore the heck out of students who, let’s face it, enter into our domains apriori bored or already expecting to be bored.  And why wouldn’t they have such expectations?

The nationwide K-12 test-centric curriculum is mind-numbing.  Also, have we really, really examined the textbooks we assign? Our assignments?  Have we considered OUR rhetorical effectiveness?  Most textbooks–readers, handbooks, and rhetorics in writing classes are utterly dreadful and only motivate perfect somnolence in typical college freshmen and sophmores.  And it’s likely our fault for not demanding more from major textbook publishers.

OK, fine, what do students want?  They know that the K-12 system treats them like test subjects.  They are conscious of the conveyor belt factory system of American education.  They crave innovation and creativity.  They want “out of the box” thinking.  The problem is: they don’t know how to achieve any of these things on their own and they expect teachers to help them.  They know perhaps better than we do that the banking concept of education is a massive fraud of collective coercion and groupthink, a means to control the masses.  They want teachers to rise to the challenges of the present moment.

Can a writing classroom be a place of genuine critical thinking, dialogue, and self-discovery?  Can a writing class serve the needs of liberation?

Wayne Booth’s “Boring Within: the Art of the Freshman Essay” is a splendid piece on how English teachers bore the heck out of students.  Booth recommends a structured emphasis on fiction.  That is, we could invite students to analyze the rhetoric of fiction, not bore them with dull high schoolish discussions of character, plot, theme, and symbolism. (Side note to my tenth grade honors English teacher Ms. Potter–you bored us silly with symbol hunting on each page of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. You almost killed literature for me!  Shame on you!)  Instead, we could focus on rhetorical tropes–figurative language–the richness and vitality of words and sentence variety.

An alternative is standardly anthologized non-fiction essays.  Oh, there’s nothing quite like the squelched chirrups of students half-engaged with mind-numbing rhetorical analyses of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  The logos, ethos, pathos, kairos!! Yawn.  Or try to get high school graduates to understand “Once More to the Lake.”  A great essay, no doubt.  But how does the average teenager comprehend a father’s mid-life crisis in the woods?  Those last two wonderful paragraphs… faces go blank and eyes glaze over.  How does a teenager relate to this material?  How many experiences has she had in life to return to “once more”?

What about creative non-fiction?  David Foster Wallace’s self-deprecating humor and irony is really easy for most millenials to miss.  So not funny.  (And yes, DFW wrote an essay on how his students don’t think Kafka is funny. But it’s not funny if you have to explain the joke).  And all those footnotes–might as well turn to deciphering Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Oh yes, and I know how we admire our assignments on drivers using cell phones, social media, or bullying at school.  Truly, important issues.  But are these topics we want to write about?  Are these genuine topics that allow for a full range of rhetorical responses?  How many novice writers will argue for the merits of bullying or the vast benefits of global warming?

What did Kenneth Burke say about the closed fist of argument and the open hand of rhetoric?

Some instructors allow students to choose their own topics.  Brainstorm and come up with a writing topic.  Complete freedom. Presumably, this strategy allows students to select topics that they’re more interested in.  Thereby, they will be more invested in the writing and reasearch process and learn more from engaged activity.  Let’s remember the problem of freedom: it’s a burdensome responsibility of individual will and self-reckoning.  Talk about Sisyphean labor.  Or a God-like pose of having to create something from nothing.  The blank page is enough of a fear-inducing problem.  Sure, freewriting, invention, and all that.  Of course, these strategies work.  But unlimited or unstructured freedom can be mind-boggling for novice writers.  It can lead to unhealthy resistance, a refusal to comply with the assignment.  Or the resistance can come in the form of hiding, keeping private, holding back, and saying nothing.

First year writing classes.  Academic writing.  Other instructors engage students by having them “write across the curriculum.”  There are merits to this approach.  One has to do with expertise.  First, a writing teacher doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert in composition pedagogy–she could appeal to her own disciplinary expertise in teaching writing. Second, multiple disciplinary perspectives allow for cross-curricular synergy.  However, several drawbacks emerge.  There is no universal academic discourse–so teaching students how to write psychology papers in APA format will not help them write literature critiques in MLA format.  Not all English instructors are trained in various disciplinary languages. In many instances, composition permits cross-pollination–we commonly address sociological, psychological, economic, political, and philosophical issues.  But a composition instructor cannot be expected to know the languages of sociology, psychology, etc–the benefit of not having comp pedagogy expertise leads to the problem of not having disciplinary expertise outside her chosen field.  If that’s the case, then how effective are composition classes in “preparing” students for general education requirements?  We’re already faced with the issue of students tranferring skills from one class to another.  We also face the predicament of first year composition becoming a “service” course, serving the needs of the other hegemonic “content” disciplines.

Some have answered these problems with a “writing in the disciplines” approach.  Not much better.  Another movement is “writing about writing.”  The idea is that since composition instructors are trained in composition, they would teach the “content” of first year writing classes as “Introduction to Writing Studies.”  Wardle and Downs suggest that since composition studies is its own discipline, then writing (most notably student writing) should be the focus of a writing class.  Students would read and write about writing, not about everything else.  They make an appealing argument, one that I want to buy but cannot bring myself to do it.  Why not?  Again, because I think the problem is boredom.

Wardle and Downs created an attractive reader aptly entitled Writing About Writing (Bedford Macmillan). The table of contents contains genuine classics by expert composition instructors–Don Murray, Richard Straub, Thomas Newkirk, Charles Bazerman, Elizabeth Wardle, Peter Elbow, Nancy Sommers, and Sandra Perl.  It also contains writers on the writing process–Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, and Victor Villanueva.  I want to use this reader!  How cool, all my favorite cats!  Let’s get jamming.  But a good litmus test for whether a textbook will be successful in the classroom is Amazon customer reviews. This isn’t always the case, but I’ve found the reviews to be moderately helpful.  You hear the buzz–positive and negative, good and bad, the banal and ugly.

Amazon reviewer Ryan Lind says: “Wardle and Downs seem to have forgotten their audience completely. Way, way too dense for incoming freshmen. An overly-scientific approach that will bore even the most strident student and snuff out any potential for literary curiosity.”  Chris Johnson says, “way too complicated of a way to describe such an easy subject.” Granted, writing is not an “easy” subject, but….Overall, Writing About Writing earns 3 1/2 stars out of 5.  I would be worried about the boredom factor.

Most of my students prefer not to write unless it’s a form of writing they find to be useful, such as texting or taking class notes.  And they don’t like to read anything (not to mention enjoy what they read).  Sad, but true.  Who reads these days?

In an English class… in composition… with the myriad writings that we can assign–literary classics, newspaper stories, magazine articles, debates and conflicts–I wonder whether we’d only encourage boredom and despair by assigning peer reviewed comp studies scholarship… Yawn, I shiver to think so.  I assume that comp articles will not motivate non-readers to become readers… and perhaps not even better writers…

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