Finally Learning the Lesson of My First Freshman Assignment
I often tell students that their learning will not end when the course is over. Unless they entirely shut down their mind, they can expect over many years to revisit the ideas we’ve discussed in the class. And maybe, if they’re lucky, many of the things that gave them the most problems during the term will later on become sources of enlightenment. Perhaps one day even these things will be pleasant to remember, as Virgil put it. Part of this advice is a bluff: how can I tell what their minds are going to do after the term is over? Part of it is aimed at undermining their sense that the grade is the end product of the course and the means of judging what the course meant to them. Most of all, though, my advice is a sharing of my own experience. I know how long it has taken me to learn what I was taught at Amherst College. It’s been an education constantly revisited.
As part of this reexamination, I recently pulled out an old manila folder containing my work from freshman English. I seem to have kept the whole lot: the assignment sheets, my papers, the mimeo’d copies of student essays offered for discussion in class. For a moment I played with the ambitious notion of taking the course again and writing each of the assignments nearly thirty-three years after my first attempts. How much better would I do? But I never got to this project. Just contemplating the first assignment gave me enough to think about.
Here’s what that first assignment asked of us:
ASSIGNMENT 1 Wed.-Thurs., Sept. 13-14, 1967
Here are some Great Thoughts (ascribed to Great Names) on the relation of writing to the writer:
The art of writing and of managing one's own life are one and the same thing.
Language most shewes a man: speak that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the Parent of it, the mind. No glasse renders a mans forme, or likeness, so true as his speech.
Good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions. --T.S. Eliot
These sentences can be taken as remarkable, astonishing, amazing, consoling, reassuring, life-enhancing, unbelievable, impossible, all wrong, disheartening, wicked, etc. That is to say, a reader feels conflicting emotions while he considers the implications of what is being said. He would like to believe that writing does have these moral connections(speak that I may see thee), yet the consequences are certainly frightening. What is it we see when we look around at the speakers and writers who surround us? What is it we see when we look at ourselves?
In the form of an editorial for the Amherst Student (or some such paper) address yourself in some decisive way to the quoted remarks. State plainly what the issue is, show how you take conflicting positions about it, and finally tell how you solve this problem.
I'm astounded by this assignment (also amazed, consoled, reassured, etc.). I am sure it meant almost nothing to me back then, but I certainly see now what a lot of sophisticated thinking is involved here. How much was expected of us! A more conventional first assignment would have asked us perhaps to write an editorial on, say, improving the dining facilities or even, back then, on some civil rights or anti-war ideas, or, more ambitiously, it might have asked us to paraphrase and somehow synthesize the ideas expressed in those three Great Thoughts. But, no, this assignment focused on our response to the Great Thoughts. It introduced us to what many of us would identify as the essence of our Amherst education, that alertness to the complexity of our own response and to the difficulties of trying to put that response into writing. They hit us hard from the very start with that paradox the College (or perhaps just the English Department?) offered us in so many different forms. What is the connection between words and experience , between language and morality, between how we talk and who we are? How far is language a “glasse [that] renders a mans forme, or likeness” and how far is it just a mask by which we disguise — deliberately or not — this form or likeness?
My first response, as it must have been for most of us faced with this assignment, was bafflement at a completely new way of looking at things. Then too there was the unsettling effect produced by our teacher, Professor Baird. That opening line plunged us straight into it all. I hear even now Professor Baird’s shift of voice to some ironic, scornful sneer at "Great" thoughts, and then become even gruffer when the word is repeated at "Great" names. (“We’re studying Great names. Are you impressed, boys?” — probing to see how ready we were to be impressed by the mere word “Great,” especially when inflated with its capital G.) Here was Baird's distrust of cant, his immediate sensitivity towards the moral implications of language. How dare we be so quick to label something “great”? What happens to true greatness when the word is used indiscriminately for trivial things? (“Great deal over at Wal-Mart this week”; Jonathan Livingston Seagull listed as one of the great books; and so on.) If we call Montaigne, Jonson, and Eliot great writers, don’t we sound a little too much like those who speak of “the great Jerry Lee Lewis” or who call Andrew Lloyd Webber “a great composer”? We can’t bring ourselves to use the word straight; we have to throw in some ironic inflection when we speak and include the mock-amplifying capital letters when we write.
The classic sophomoric (wise fool) response is to be wise enough to recognize the need for irony, but still fool enough to think that great can have none but ironic meanings, that no one can be called great. But the point is that Montaigne, Jonson, and Eliot were great writers, and their sentences at the head of this assignment are great thoughts. So now where are we? — Just where the assignment wants us to be: face to face with our “conflicting emotions” and awaking to the enormous difficulties of trying to match words with ideas. What do we do? Many of us came to learn that the script at this point called for us to respond with a series of questions. We thought this was a clever way out of the problem when we didn’t know what to do next. We could avoid giving any answers and bluff a good grade from the teacher. We thought we were pulling one over on the teachers but in fact we were doing just what they wanted us to. We were practicing asking complex questions. And as for the answers to these questions? Yes, well. First tell me whether Montaigne, Jonson, and Eliot were “Great Names” or not.
Let me interject an anecdote at this point, illustrating this hypersensitivity to inflated language that was instilled in us. One evening in graduate school at Rutgers Robert DeMaria and I (two alumni of the Amherst English Department) found ourselves having a meal at Mr. B’s — a now-defunct fast-food restaurant back in the days when there were still one or two such places not part of large chains. Mr. B’s was a marvel of metaphor. I suppose the owner was a man whose name began with B; everything else followed from there. As we rounded the circle at an intersection of some desolate mid-Jersey state highway, we saw a high school kid fitted out in a bee costume: black tights and huge yellow shell around the body, with arms sticking out, covered in some gauzy material to represent wings. The poor kid just stood there on the edge of the parking lot waving all cars passing by to come on in to Mr. B’s. How could we resist this bee’s invitation?
Inside the bee motif continued. There were plastic bees hanging from the ceiling, which, when we looked more carefully, we noticed spelled out “M-I-S-T-E-R--B-E-E.” Between the two layers of glass the tables were made of was a space broken into little cells, each one containing its own little plastic bee. The walls were decorated with elementary school children’s drawings of Mr. B — a project no doubt completed after a class trip to the place (to study apiculture? metaphor?).
But the menu was the richest treat. The star attraction was a Bee-burger, and then for the kiddies the Buzz-burger. The fried chicken was, of course, Honey Fried Chicken. And what about the fillet of fish? What sort of bee-language could be used for that? None, presumably, and they were backed into a corner here. Rather than abandon the animal imagery and — God forbid — call the item by what it really was, the poet who wrote the menu came up with a Whale-burger. If you’re going to use animal metaphors, then why not go for the biggest?
As an alert son of Amherst English, DeMaria immediately fixed on the Whale-burger. Never mind what food he wanted to eat; this was language too delicious to pass by. As we waited in line, he kept rehearsing his order: “I’ll have a Whale-burger, please.” “I’ll have a Wha-a-a-ale-burger, please.” What voice does such an order call for? By the time he came to the counter, DeMaria was so caught up with the notion of calling a little frozen piece of fish on a bun a whale-burger that he could hardly stand for laughing so hard. “What would you like for dinner, sir?” asked the innocent queen bee, or whatever she was called. “I’ll have a . . . I’ll have a . . . I’ll have a . . . .” No, it wouldn’t come out. I think I had to order for him, but only by abandoning the game and just asking for one of those fish fillets. Was it any good? Who remembers? Could it have been any good with such a name? Great Names make Great Food? Presumably we were expected to think so.
I want to return to that first day’s assignment in English 11. Our assignment tells us that the reader — male readers only in those days — “feels conflicting emotions while he considers the implications of what is being said.” I’m more interested for the moment in this sentence than in those by Montaigne, Jonson, and Eliot. All “Great Thoughts,” I know now, stir up “conflicting emotions” in the reader, but how open is a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old to this kind of wisdom? At that age we want to show how certain we are in finding the truth. Who among us had the courage to admit inner conflict?
I certainly hadn’t. But I have been braver since and perhaps nowhere so much as in mustering the courage to go back to my own paper — my first piece of work submitted at Amherst College — to see what conflicting emotions the paper happened to reveal. I find there no conflicting emotions, only one single emotion: fear. The assignment tells us that we “would like to believe that writing does have these moral connections [. . .], yet the consequences are certainly frightening.” They sure are, so much so that I did all I could to avoid them.
It’s difficult now to read my one page of poorly typed material, where, among other mistakes, I consistently spelled Jonson Johnson. (Baird had better things to do than even to notice this gaff.) If “language most shewes a man,” then I blush at what my paper shows me about who I was. This connection between writing and one’s inner self petrified me, probably because I dreaded what sort of mind my poor writing revealed. So instead of really tackling the issue, I danced around it — stumbled around it is more like it. I began by asking how one can see into someone’s mind if that person doesn’t write well — a good question if seriously pursued, but I was just throwing it up as a dodge. I played around with the cliché “actions speak louder than words” and through some sort of fuzzy casuistry concluded that words are actions and therefore the cliché is meaningless. And finally I proposed the astounding assertion that we are trying to see into a person’s mind in order “to find out his thoughts.” Poor Professor Baird having to read this stuff. Written vertically up the margin in orange ink is his response: I find no sequence of thought here. All you do is repeat (badly) and ask rhetorical questions. Where does this get you?
How tactful of him not to state the obvious, that my awful writing revealed a mind in shambles. Instead he returned me to the starting point: Where does this get you? We’re back examining our own position. I can see now that where my paper got me was into a cozy shell, safe from the challenges the assignment was throwing at me. Another Amherst image flashes across my memory at this moment, over in some room in the gym where a group of us were vainly trying to learn the rudiments of fencing. Instead of applying myself to learning the skill, I wrapped myself in the romance of holding a foil, and when it came time for me to pair off with the instructor, I immediately abandoned all the disciplined movements we had been taught and wriggled around, made histrionic posturings, and destroyed the integrity of the sport. That, I see, is what I also did in my paper for Baird.
A statement from the English Department, handed to us on our first day, told us that
Intellectual Responsibility means a certain relation between teacher and student; it is not the relation that exists when education is seen by the student as a game; it is the relation that exists when, despite the fact that the teacher is a teacher and the student a student, education is seen as a conversation between adults, a joint exploration, a serious and straightforward undertaking.
Thanks for offering to treat me as an adult, Professor Baird. I’m sorry I wasn’t up to it.
I notice too that my essay completely avoided dealing with the request to produce a newspaper editorial . Thus I also turned my back on the idea of language as creating a persona. We put on a mask when we use words; we are not presenting our “true selves.” The assignment was asking us to consider the paradox of language both revealing and concealing the person at the same time as it was asking us to write not as our selves but in the guise of a newspaper editor (one of the great anonymous voices in our society). At least I could have tried to face this challenge. I might have learned something about the slipperiness of words. “You say some words,” Baird once told us, “and the po-lice come and throw you in the clink. ‘But it’s only a word!’ But there you are, behind bars.” So what are words? — the glasse by which we see into a person’s mind, or the mask by which we are deflected from anything inside? "Speak that I may see thee." But wait, how do I know thee with this barrier of language between us? And how much of the self does an editorial writer want to expose anyway?
I really began to face up to what I’d been taught in English 11, appropriately enough, only when I began teaching freshman composition myself. I began doing this just about the time when English departments across the country were rediscovering the need for freshman English to teach students how to write papers for their other classes, rather than encourage students to express themselves however they wanted about subjects “relevant” to them. Jim Guetti — another Amherst alumnus in the Rutgers English Department — had just ended his stint as head of freshman English, and I have the impression many of the young teaching assistants viewed him as representative of some slightly dated radical ideas about teaching — all this introspection and no preparation for writing across the curriculum. But I recognized what he had been up to. The word was that Guetti would ask students to look in the mirror. What do you see? Who is that looking at you? and so on. Of course. It was the old game of trying to find language to express our responses to the most complex experiences we can find.
And so how was I going to handle this new post-Guetti composition course? All I knew about freshman English was that you gave the class something hard to consider and asked them where they found themselves as they thought about this and what language they’d use to locate themselves. Meanwhile the prevailing orthodoxy was to focus on how to set up comparison/contrast papers (“my dorm room vs. the apartment we had last summer down the shore”) or how to present a case (“Why we should be allowed to bring food into the classroom”). The aim was to teach the students how to build a paper around a thesis statement, how to develop a coherent and effective paragraph, and so on.
Something bothered me about this method of teaching. I couldn’t fit myself comfortably into that training role where I was the expert who told the students how to write a paper and then marked how well they met the requirements. It was so far from anything I’d experienced myself at college. I heard the voice of Professor Armour Craig telling us, “I am not here to teach you technique.” I was still expecting a college course to take the form of a “conversation between adults, a joint exploration, a serious and straightforward undertaking,” even though — or perhaps precisely because — I’d not often lived up to the demands of this conversation myself as an undergraduate.
So I developed my own version of writing assignment both at Rutgers and then over here in England with the University of Maryland’s European Division. In what ways might someone looking at my writing or literature classes today recognize their roots in my experiences at Amherst? First of all, there are my comments in the margins as I spring on any platitudes, clichés, jargon, or other sloppy uses of language. If this is conversation between adults, after all, we owe each other the consideration of at least trying to speak honestly. And I’d like to think that those undergraduate years of dishonest writing on my part make me, not hypocritical in asking for honesty from my students, but more aware of the need for such honesty and more sympathetic to the students’ constant falling short of this ideal. (Maybe Amherst taught us best by making sure we kept falling short. People used to talk about a legendary paper that came back with the comment, “Perfect! A–”. )
But there are constraints working upon me that I believe our teachers never had to contend with. I have to be careful how I go about springing on students’ sloppy language. This is, after all, a litigious consumerist culture where students can sue for harassment if I hurt their feelings. I can’t be as mischievous or gruff or downright cruel as Amherst teachers often were. (“Retire under the table for that remark, Mr. Jones!”) What I can do, however, is drag the memory of these teachers into the classroom and tell my students about how tough teachers were in my day (when we had to write three papers a week and there was never any question about missing a paper or handing it in late). Thus, I can let these Amherst teachers play the bad cop to my good cop. I might write zzzz where students are downright boring or reply with a sarcastic yup! where they have written some unconsidered generality (“Prejudice has become a major issue in America today.” — Yup! “King Lear is one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.”— Yup!). Most students will then recognize that I’m bringing on the voice of one of those mythic teachers from my past, and this creates a bond between us as I share with them the same voice of the impatient reader I heard when I was a student. In this way students are more likely to take even my harshest marginal comments in fairly good form. So far there have been no harassment cases.
I try to explain the direction of the course and the way each reading or writing assignment fits into a pattern, but you’d recognize the Amherst influence in my refusal to offer the students any model of correctness to strive for. How can I? To offer a model (even if I could) would be to run my own order through the students’ chaos and free the students from the hard work of confronting their own responses. Robin Varnum’s study of the old English 1 class, Fencing with Words, takes Baird to task for his never explaining what was going on or what exactly was being demanded from the students, thus apparently denying the students any power over their own learning. This concern for empowerment is an issue we can’t ignore these days, especially when students are so loud in their demands that I just tell them what I want and they’ll do it for me, or so insistent that they must know how to meet all the requirements so they can get a top grade. (Baird never put a grade on our papers; we knew what we were “getting” only when the grades came home at the end of the term.) It’s hard when a student comes to me desperate to know how to improve a grade in a paper that evades complex emotions the same way my old papers did. How far dare I simply advise the student to be more honest? What else can I say? With the confused students who say, “I have no idea what this passage is all about,” there’s an easier answer: “Good, good. Start your essay by admitting you’re confused.” We could always get away with that kind of opening at Amherst, and now I see why. Once students can relax into their confusion, they’re much more ready to deal with intellectual as well as emotional complexities. They generally only now start to write really interesting papers. Take my word that this happens.
I watch students suffering as I did from this pressure to come to terms with what is going on in a text and within themselves. I watch them run off to a library or some Internet site in search of an easier answer, but the kind of questions I have learned to ask them do not have their answers in other books. “I’m not interested in answers; I’m interested in replies,” is how Frost put it. Redite in teipsum, Augustine said; you have to look inside yourself. And if what you find are conflicting emotions, then you know you’ve probably hit on a genuine place to start.
So after all, Where does this get you? as Baird asked on my first freshman paper. It gets us, oddly enough, into a kind of mystical moment, the last place most of us expected our Amherst education to be leading us to. We were encouraged, as I hope I in turn am encouraging my students, to examine the language others use and we use ourselves, not in the search of some absolute truth but in the full awareness that we are entering slippery grounds, a place of uncertainty where the most we can hope for is that notorious “momentary stay against confusion.” We live in a world where, as Baird said, "The existence of chaos is a fact of experience. We encounter it daily, hourly. We know it is, even though when we begin to talk about it we make some kind of order. It can be referred to and pointed at by many different sets of words, many different metaphors."
And our response to this encounter with chaos? The deep lesson that time and again keeps coming back to me is the need for a brave and humble sense of irony in the face of what Samuel Johnson (whose pained, impatient, probing, and ultimately reverent voice I hear more than any other in Baird’s writing) called “the vanity of human wishes.” We feel this irony particularly in the poignant disparity between what Baird called “the simplifications of language and the unutterable complexity of being alive,” the vanity of trying to find words for all those complex emotions. From there it’s only a short step to standing in awe at “the fundamental mystery of all human motivation.” We are now in the world beyond words, the point, as Baird admitted to Robin Varnum, “of many assignments we made, to bring the writer to an awareness of the inexpressible.”
Then what? Often, just wonder, “my response to what I do not understand.” And is this, after all, where my English 11 assignment brings me in the end? To silent wonder at mystery? Is there any better, or more unexpected,