This fall, among other pursuits, I’ve been teaching one section of “Composition & Rhetoric” at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. I’ve led fiction writing workshops at the university level before, but this has been my first foray into expository writing. At times, I’ve found myself questioning my professorial fitness (as regular readers of this blog may even now be doing); how can I claim to explain a set of forms that I haven’t myself mastered?
But when it comes to writing, we’re all apprentices (to paraphrase Hemingway), and I’ve been blessed with a group of creative, curious, and hardworking writers-in-training. Of my 16 students, 14 are enrolled in the Alvin Ailey School of Dance – which is to say that they’re well on their way to being artists in another medium. This may account for the high quality of their work.
Or maybe it’s the pedagogical principle I cribbed from my quondam teacher Lawrence Weschler: Assign your students readings that you really love. My syllabus, thrown together in a single manic week in August, wound up coalescing loosely around ideas of New York before and after September 11, 2001. Even in a week when my Socratic skills failed me, my class and I would at least have the consolation of having read something complex and beautiful, like the city itself. What follows is a diary of our mutual education.
Week 1: “Here is New York,” by E.B. White (from Essays)
For me, this is what a good essay looks like, but at this point in the semester, I can’t quite explain why. My instructions: “Go sit in Central Park when you read this. You can thank me later.” They do.
One of the weird things about literary criticism at the college level is that students are often asked to write it without ever having read it. I’m hoping that this pairing might provide an object lesson in good criticism. My class, of course, prefers the story to the essay. The fiction writer in me sees this as a promising sign.
Week 3: “Still-Life,” by Don Delillo (an excerpt from Falling Man originally published in The New Yorker)
I tell students to treat DeLillo the way Hardwick treated Melville. That is, critically. Instead, they fall in love with him. I end up thinking more highly of Falling Man than I did when I first read it, and liked it.
The Weschler reading, which included photographs, leads to a discussion of reading images critically – a skill we all need these days. Then we read the Sontag, which is kind of an argument against everything I’ve been teaching them up to this point. Is this brilliant, or suicidal?
Week 4: “Come September,” by Arundhati Roy (from The Impossible Will Take A Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear)
Moving away from literary criticism and toward social criticism proves difficult, as many readers, myself included, find this essay frustratingly orthodox in its politics. We end up talking about “preaching to the choir,” and the failure of partisan arguments to persuade their opponents. Victory snatched from jaws of defeat.
Weeks 5 – 7: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin.
Rereading this clarifies some things for me. Among them, that an essay doesn’t always have to be an argument; that it can be an exploration. This will become a theme. (Damn you, Sontag!)
Week 8: “What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill,” by Sarah Vowell (from Take the Cannoli)
This one doesn’t get quite the reaction I had hoped for; students find it a little didactic. Maybe I should have chosen “Ixnay on the My Way.” Still, the Vowell essay on Cherokee history does offer an example of how exposition can be structured narratively.
Week 9-Week 10: “The White Album,” by Joan Didion (from The White Album)
With its jagged, discontinuous structure, this memoir of the ’60s provokes the strongest responses I’ll probably get this year, ranging from, “I loved this” to “I hated this” – which is pretty much what I’ve been hoping for all semester. When I read my students’ personal essays, I’ll see that “The White Album” has challenged them to become better writers. It never hurts to expose undergraduates to a surgically precise stylist like Didion, either.
Week 11: “Dancing in the Dark,” by Joan Acocella (from Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints)
Yet another of those frequent occasions when the professor learns more from the students than vice versa. The dancers tell me all about Bob Fosse, and evaluate Acocella’s claims critically. In the end, most agree that Fosse’s choreography is more about power than about sex. And again, exposure to a writer of Acocella’s intelligence and lucidity can only help their prose. It’s certainly helped mine.
Week 12: “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” by Jonathan Lethem (from The Disappointment Artist)
This should be interesting. We’re now in the middle of the research essay unit, but I’d love to see my students push beyond the conventions of the term paper; to combine research, personal reflection, and critical thought as Lethem does in this essay about a subway stop.
Week 14: “Last Cigarettes,” by Marco Roth.
This piece originally appeared in N+1, and has a lot to say about college, and becoming a writer. Like the Lethem essay, it pushes against the rigid boundaries of the “four rhetorical modes.” If I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that good expository writing doesn’t always adhere to such neat distinctions. Though at times I’ve wished I could tell my class, “This is how you write an essay,” throwing them into the messy process of discovery may ultimately be a more honest initiation into the pains – and joys – of writing.