Educational Autobiographies

by Salvatore Pane

Recently, I posted my plan to let my comp students write about their own obsessions in a mode similar to Tom Bissell’s stellar essay “Grand Thefts”. It didn’t turn out as well as I expected. Alongside the obsession option was another essay prompt about art that only two students out of nineteen took. I tell my kids all the time that I’m not some godly authority, that I’m learning as much as they are. And one thing I’ve learned is that sadly, I have to cut that obsession essay from future versions of the course. Luckily, the final essay prompt seems to have gone over extremely well. I’m only halfway through the papers but they’re really fucking impressive. Essay assignment is below. Let me know what you think, what types of things you teach (if you teach), if you have suggestions, etc. etc. etc. For this one they had to read “Aria” by Richard Rodriguez, “I Just Wanna Be Average” by Mike Rose and “Telling Tales in School: A Redneck Daughter in the Academy” by Hephzibah Roskelly.

Essay #5 (4-5 Pages)

Students will float to the mark you set. I and the others in the vocational classes were bobbing in pretty shallow water. Vocational education has aimed at increasing the economic opportunities of students who do not do well in our schools. Some serious programs succeed in doing that, and through exceptional teachers… students learn to develop hypotheses and troubleshoot, reason through a problem, and communicate effectively—the true job skills. The vocational track, however, is most often a place for those who are just not making it, a dumping ground for the disaffected. There were a few teachers who worked hard at education; young Brother Slattery, for example, combined a stern voice with weekly quizzes to try to pass along to us a skeletal outline of world history. But mostly the teachers had no idea of how to engage the imaginations of us kids who were scuttling along at the bottom of the pond.

—Mike Rose in “I Just Wanna Be Average”

Personal inquiry. Argument. Personal inquiry. Argument. At times, this course has felt like a battleground with lines clearly drawn between those who would rather write personal essays and those who feel that much more is at stake in formal arguments. For Essay #5, we want you to produce a hybrid, an essay that not only reveals the writer’s life ala David Masello and Tom Bissell, but one that also strives to make a point ala Peter Singer and Kelli Whitehead.

The educational system is something every American has experienced on some level. Each person in this course has gone through high school, and now you’ve chosen to extend your education at least four years here at Pitt. Yet many of you feel there are a great many problems within the education system. Richard Rodriguez tells a personal story about being forced to speak English instead of Spanish and how badly that damaged his relationship with his family. He then parlays that into an argument against widespread bilingual education. Mike Rose tells a personal story about being shuttled into the vocational track instead of the honors courses where he rightfully belonged. He then parlays that into an argument about students rising to what’s expected of them so that honors students act like honors students and vocational students act like vocational students. Hephzibah Roskelly tells stories about stories, referring to her days growing up on the farm and listening to her family’s tales. She parlays this into an argument about narrative as educational tool and the unjust stereotype most people think of when they hear the term “redneck”.

For this essay, you must write a personal story about education and parlay that into an argument about education. Pick something you care about. Be interested in your work. If you are bored with your topic, so will your readers. What links Rodriguez, Rose and Roskelley is that they have all chosen to write about deeply personal matters and use those feelings to write a coherent argument about education. You must critique the educational system. Nearly anything is fair game, everything from kindergarten to high school to college athletics to unfair distribution of scholarships. Secondly, like Roskelley, you must use outside sources. For this essay, we are requiring THREE OUTSIDE SOURCES. This does not mean Wikipedia. This means books in the library or articles on PittCATT. Your sources must be integrated organically into the paper like in Roskelley’s, and you must provide a works cited that follows MLA format (Microsoft Word can do this for you). Search out people who agree with your argument. Search out people who disagree with your argument and “beat” them at their own game just like you “beat” Peter Singer. Like anything, the debate concerning education is an ongoing conversation. Your paper is not an island, but a mere dialogue in an endless series of conversations.