Salvatore Pane

Tag: Richard Rodriguez

Educational Autobiographies

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.

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Thoughts on the Short Story Survey

“Do people still care about short fiction?” That’s a redundant, pointless question for the most part, but I find it interesting that the dominant form of literary fiction consumed in this country is the novel, yet so many undergraduate institutions focus primarily on the short story in writing workshops and even in general surveys for non-English majors. I’m taking an Independent Study at Pitt with Nick Coles called Seminar in Course Design. The goal of the course is for me to generate five syllabi for a wide variety of classes: Workshop in Composition, Short Stories in Context, The Graphic Novel, Intro to Creative Writing and Intro to Fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of pedagogical theory on these subjects by writers like Mike Rose, Richard Rodriguez, Madison Smart Bell and Peter Turchi. It’s been really great experience so far, but the one I keep getting stuck on is the short story course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the survey courses I took in undergrad. My professor was a particularly cool guy we all wanted to emulate. Dr. Laurence Roth had a book out about Jewish detective fiction and wrote scholarly articles about comic book luminary Will Eisner. He also played in a kickass band made up of other faculty members. This is all to say that he had a posse of students who signed up for practically every class he taught. When I took his survey,  I was still a very naive, innocent undergrad reading Carver, Dubus, Wolff and Ford pretty much exclusively. Roth bombarded us with Pynchon, Eggers, Safran-Foer, DeLillo, Kincaid and even the aforementioned Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware. I was alternatively frightened by Roth’s selection and intrigued. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that Roth’s survey class proved a valuable counterpoint to the realism heavy focus of all my workshop classes. Roth showed the alternative; he showed us what else was possible.

So the question I’ve been facing is whether or not one class can balance both sides. Can a single survey course manage to promote neither realism, postmodernism or any other school of thought, and instead, simply show students the possibilities and let them decide on their own? Or will professors’ biases always come to the forefront no matter how democratic a syllabus? I’m not sold either way. But I’ve made an attempt. Below, you will find a draft of my short story survey syllabus. I’m looking to improve it, so if you have any suggestions, please throw them out. Keep in mind, it’s aimed at undergraduates.

Course Description

This course is a survey of the various facets of the contemporary short story from 1950 to present. The class will be broken down into four major units in which we will examine the work of authors from different literary movements and see how they are affected by history and culture. The first unit will involve a thorough analysis of the so-called post war writers who often focused on the widespread conformity of 1950s and early 1960s America. Unit two will move on to the more experimental writers of the ‘60s and beyond and focus on how these writers constructed their stories and why they were so deeply impacted by their place in literary history. Then we will cover the dirty realists of the ‘80s and their shift back to basics during an age of utter excess. Toward the end of the course, we will study the growing world of globalized writers and the plight of those who deal with the aftermath of colonial imperialism. Finally, the class will investigate the new frontier of canonized short story writers and attempt to understand and categorize what their place in history is.

Required Coursework

The class is designed as an ongoing discussion about the contemporary short story and how the form affects and is affected by broader stratifications in history and culture. We will conduct close readings on the assigned material every class. After the second week, group presentations will begin in which teams of four students are given time to present on directed topics. Aside from class participation and group presentations, grades will be based on three separate papers in which students will be asked to discuss the various texts at length along with supplemental material and other theoretical/cultural concerns.

Sequence

Unit I: Post War Conformity in the USA: The Rise of Traditional Realism

John Updike
John Cheever
J.D Salinger
James Baldwin
Richard Yates
Group Presentations Begin

Unit II: The Counter Culture and Avant-Garde

Donald Barthelme
Joyce Carol Oates
James Alan McPherson
Barry Hannah
Toni Cade Bambara
Charles Baxter
Jamaica Kincaid
Roberto Bolano
Paper #1 Due

Unit III: Dirty Realism in the Age of Reagan

Tim O’Brien
Raymond Carver
Andre Dubus
Tobias Wolff
Richard Ford
Bobbie Ann Mason
Alice Munro
Breece D’J Pancake
Lorrie Moore
Paper #2 Due

Unit IV: New Frontiers

David Foster Wallace
Rick Moody
Rick Bass
Etgar Keret
Junot Diaz
Dan Chaon
Robert Boswell
Dave Eggers
Antonya Nelson
Miranda July
Stewart O’ Nan
A.M Homes
Don Lee
Jhumpa Lahir
George Saunders

Final Paper Due

Assignments

Paper #1) Using the work of two writers from Unit I and two writers from Unit II, compare and contrast the style and techniques of the Post War Realists and the Experimentalists. What is at stake for these groups of writers and is there any overlap? Focus your argument on whether or not one side or the other has more emotional resonance. You may want to take into consideration that the answer may be more complex than “the experimentalists have more emotional resonance because…” What concerns bind these seemingly disparate groups of writers together? What threatens to tear them apart? 5 pages.

Paper #2) What does it mean to be a dirty realist in the age of Reagan? Using the work of at least three of the writers covered in Unit III, come up with a mantra for this generation of writers and spend your paper arguing their merits and drawbacks. What have these writers taken from those in Unit I? What about Unit II? On the flip side, what have they jettisoned? What is gained from their techniques? What is lost? Feel free to make use of the historical milieu of the time period. 5 pages.

Paper #3) We have now examined some of the most major writers of the short story from 1950 to the present day. Since you now have a vast resource of stories and writers to draw from, I would like you to select three writers from Unit IV that you think are similar stylistically. Then go back through the previous units and attempt to create a genealogy for this group of writers. You should argue which writers and stories influenced your writers and how. Do you see the macabre flourishes of Joyce Carol Oates in the work of Dan Chaon? Is there a connection between the down and out protagonists of Raymond Carver and the Pittsburgh milieu of Stewart O’ Nan? Is Jhumpa Lahir’s interest in the post-colonial world influenced by Jamaica Kincaid in any tangible way? Make connections. See the through lines that are at play in literary history. 10 pages.

The Most Unfortunately Titled Article Ever Published or Why America Hates English Professors

A few days ago I read an entry on the LA Times blog Jacket Copy written by former Pitt MFAer Carolyn Kellogg. The article links back to a feature published in The American Book Review conspicuously titled “Top 40 Bad Books”. Normally, I wouldn’t read such a list because there’s so much great literature out there, so many wonderful opportunities. Why dwell on the negative? But the writers Carolyn name-checked from the article were enough to pique my interest (and rage): Cormac McCarthy? F. Scott Fitzgerald?! RICHARD YATES ??!! Umm….. huh? The introduction (there’s no author credited) gives us this:

Richard Ford once said that it takes as much effort to produce a bad book as a good book. And as disheartening as that sounds, what Ford’s assertion might raise, and what most everyone who has attempted the task of a book-length work already knows, is the notion that effort alone does not ensure a book’s success, and that there are probably more ways for a good book to be overlooked than a bad book to never make it into print…

That said, what constitutes a bad book? Is it an overrated “good” book? Can an otherwise good author produce a “bad” book? Is the badness in style, in execution? Or is it in theme or outlook? Or is the notion of a “bad” book even comprehensible in the age of postmodernism, poststructialism, and cultural studies?

Calling the question of “bad books” to the fore elicited—as might be expected—an overwhelming response. The forty responses below were selected to demonstrate the sheer variety of responses to what at face value seems a simple question. But as with most literary matters, nothing is as simple as it appears—not even the question of what constitutes a bad book… (American Book Review)

Ok, let’s just ignore the fact that they used the dreaded “theme” while discussing literature. I didn’t realize this was AP English. Anyway, what’s on the list? The Great Gatsby. Revolutionary Road. All the Pretty Horses. The Ian Fleming James Bond novels. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. Dreiser, Melville and Colson Whitehead also make appearances. On initial glance, I wanted to yell and scream and rant. The list is made up of 40 entries written by College English Professors (in all Caps of course). A few of the entires are obsessed with attacking well-renowned writers and tearing down their legacies (the Yates and Fitzgerald entries are especially, and needlessly, unkind), but there are many examples here of professors (and a writer or two) doing good work. Some don’t even name a single book. For example, take a look at what Dagoberto Gilb has to say on the subject of bad books:

Like bad girlfriends (and boyfriends, too), there are so many categories of bad books that it’d be gruesome and pathetic to categorize the various species of that sorryness. Setting aside the intrinsically aggravating that the very coquetish author is actually stupid, or the editor who chose the manuscript is too dumb or lame or dazzled, or that the system which perpetuates both of them is as flawed as a university paying for a Glenn Beck lecture series, and omitting the writers who are really salespeople, as are their duped or complicit publishers hyping their so pretty product as though…. Wait a minute, that may be what I think is a major bad book or line of them even. (Gilb) (His ellipses, not mine)

One professor wonders about the usefulness of bad books and cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Another, Gerald Graff, talks about the practicality of bad books in pedagogical practice. Graff writes, “It has always seemed strange to me that bad books aren’t a prominent part of our school and college literature curriculum. How do we expect students to learn to tell the difference between good and bad books unless we assign some bad ones for comparison? Don’t you need badness in order to know goodness?” Another interesting tangent is brought up by Carol Guess who says:

Notice (2004) was published posthumously. Its narrative voice was so unique that no press would touch it until Lewis committed suicide at forty. Her suicide allowed the book’s publication; now she was dead, and sufficiently chastened for examining experiences that mainstream culture attempts to suppress. Before she killed herself, Lewis wrote one more novel, The Second Suspect (1998). This book was published and reviewed during her lifetime. It was bought, and it was read. The Second Suspect is a terrible book. But it’s not just a bad book; it’s so much more. It’s a bad book riffing off the author’s masterpiece. The Second Suspect is a rewriting of Notice, but minus everything that makes Notice literary. The Second Suspect takes plot, characters, and themes from Notice and reduces them to formulaic drivel. (Guess)

It’s obvious that Guess isn’t arguing that The Second Suspect is one of the worst books ever written, just as it’s painfully clear that some of these professors have axes to grind (look at the lambasting poor Cormac McCarthy takes!) and are using the American Book Review as a platform to air their theoretical grievances. So although the article in its entiretry is far less inflamatory than expected, what I can not stand for is its title. “Top 40 Bad Books” is a horrible title when the article in question doesn’t even have a list, when some of its contributors don’t even put forth a single book. I’m hoping that this is some type of marketing ploy, that the Editors at ABR chose this title knowing it would be controversial and would garner more attention (case in point, its mention on this blog). But an article like this written by a legion of college professors does much more harm than it does good. It purpotrates a stereotype that America loves to hate, that of the stodgy old English professor who despises everything.

For an example of what I’m talking about, check out The New Republic’s review of a recent memoir, The Professor and Other Writings, by Terry Castle. Ross Posnock, the reviewer, starts his critique with the following:

The public expression of contempt for professors is one of our cherished national pastimes and is that rare thing—bipartisan… Recently on its front page the New York Times invoked “the classic image of a humanities professor … tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular—and liberal” in a story on a sociological study of the power of typecasting. And in the annals of egghead bashing, the perennial butt of the foolproof punch line has long been the English professor. For decades Hollywood has dined out on this stereotype—Dennis Quaid’s bloated, bleary, and insufferable literature professor in Smart People is only a recent entry in a long parade of fatuity—but the Times has also loyally done its part. Their reports on the MLA convention are always good for a laugh, with their generous sampling of silly and sex-addled paper titles (who can forget “Wandering Genitalia in Late Medieval German Literature and Culture”?) that the Times cited a few years ago as proof that “eggheads are still nerds” with too much “sex on their minds (and time on their hands).” Whether the accusation is justified or not is less the point than the casualness of the contempt, the easy assumption of a license to scorn. Almost no group is more safely maligned and mocked. (Posnock)

I love the New Republic (especially their dryly titled lit blog The Book), but when they think you’re stodgy you know there’s a serious PR problem. Articles like “Top 40 Bad Books” reinforce the stereotype that English professors are cranky old dipshits seething in their Ivy Towers casting their hate outwards at everything. They are not lovers of literature; they are destroyers. Fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction are the manure from which they produce their cornucopia of brilliance. While Carol Guess and Gerald Graff and Dagoberto Gilb attempt to subvert this assumption, there are just as many examples within the ABR article that prove it. Since there are no bios included within the text of the article (only the names of institutions), one has to wonder if these hater professors teach Literature exclusively or if they dabble in their school’s Comp or Creative Writing departments.

The reason why I ask about what department these professors come from is because of an article by William M. Chace in the American Scholar. This was passed around in secret between friends of mine because the views expressed within are relatively controversial in a University environment. Entitled “The Decline of the English Department”, Chace’s article explores how and why enrollment numbers in English departments across the country have plummeted since the 1960’s coinciding with the ascendancy of critical theory as the main text of the humanities classroom. His findings are what you expect. He blames things on cultural studies and theorists with pseudo-political, pseudo-philosophical agendas (thus satisfying neither the politician or philosopher) and the shift away from the so-called Great Books. This stereotype of an English professor is in line with the bogeymen presented in the ABR article: Learned Men coming down the mount to explain to us philistines why The Great Gatsby is one of the top 40 worst books ever written.

But not all is doom and gloom. What Chase ignores is the rise of undergraduate Creative Writing programs and MFAs. Their enrollments have skyrocketed since the 1960’s with MFA programs pumping out 5,000 graduates a year. Similarly, Comp programs have also evolved thanks to the work of dedicated scholars like Mike Rose and Richard Rodriguez. While regular humanities classes become more and more specialized and in some cases jettison works of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction altogether, creative writing and comp classrooms have put the focus back on student work and the so-called great books. So, to cap off this long, rambling rant, we need more professors like Guess and Graff and Gilb willing to ruminate over tough subjects, but also willing to celebrate the beautiful act that is the reception and creation of literature. And what we need less of are professors making lists of the worst books ever written and explaining why exactly the work of Richard Yates is so offensively terrible.

Rediscovering Nonfiction

A few weeks ago I was at a multi-genre reading with segments of fiction and nonfiction. I sat. I listened. I thought about how cultured I was. And I was utterly bored, especially during the creative nonfiction components. It was mostly navel-gazing and that genre I hate more than anything in the entire world: “Memoir of a Privileged, White Twenty-Something”. Ok, I guess that’s slightly better than “Memoir of a Privileged, White Twenty-Something Who Goes To The Third World and is Enlightened Spiritually”.  I sat there scowling and thinking about how much I used to love CNF back in college when I enjoyed literary journalism as well-deserved respites from devouring novel after novel after novel. I sat there thinking how I no longer cared about the genre.

In a workshop class I’m taking, writer Cathy Day has us thinking about “the negative cultural and critical reaction to personal nonfiction writing vs. its popular/commercial appeal”. It’s interesting that in an era of publishing history when nonfiction greatly outsells all facets of fiction that CNF, particularly the memoir, is under attack. Check out Taylor Antrim’s tirade on The Daily Beast. How about Maud Newton’s slam over at the LA Times? Two big name authors who swung through Pittsburgh both discussed how much they disliked CNF: Lorrie Moore and Aleksandar Hemon.

I can only speak to my own experience. I’m not a huge reader of the genre. I’m very often bored by memoirs, especially if the writer isn’t famous or hasn’t gone through something exceptional. I don’t read nonfiction for assurance that I am not alone in the universe and that there are others out there like me; that’s why I read fiction. These are my favorite works of CNF: On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner. Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose (light pedagogical theory). Portions of Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (a pedagogical biography).  No More Vietnams by Richard Nixon. Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman. A Tragic Honesty: The Biography of Richard Yates. And New New Journalism, a fantastic collection with long, informative essays by writers as varied as John McPhee and Hunter S. Thompson.

I bring these up to illustrate a point. The Rumpus recently ran an interesting article about why people read nonfiction. It quotes John D’Agata who asks, “Do we read [nonfiction] to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?” I think this is the fundamental sticking point in the nonfiction debate. I’ve looked at my shelves, thought about this question and my own instinctively negative reaction towards memoirs. Clearly, I’m not reading nonfiction for art. No one who lists the prose of Richard Nixon as a favorite could possibly be looking for art, and it’s now obvious I value the genre for its ability to distill and disseminate information.

So to sum up: I think that a bunch of leather-elbowed professors and critics sitting around trying to decide whether CNF is a bankrupt genre is silly. It’s different from fiction. The two genres aren’t in competition with one another. People whose natural instinct it is to chide CNF are probably just coming at it from a different viewpoint: they’re not looking to experience voice, or sometimes even emotion in nonfiction; they’re looking for (at times clinical) information. And if that’s your primary motivation for reading nonfiction, it’s difficult to really compare it to fiction in any favorable way. Nor should you.