Seven Lessons on Writing Saturday, Dec 14 2013 

From the way back archives of my writing, sort of in response to an article that just appeared in Slate.

I wrote this more than a decade ago, for a class assignment in a graduate class in composition theory. Over the years, the Mr. Sinclair of this little essay has proven to be a guiding light in my own career as a teacher of writing.


Seven Lessons on Writing

Lesson One: Third Grade
I had a little Scholastic notebook; we all did. Inside, we were to write whatever we wanted, just so long as we did it often (I can’t remember if it was once a week, twice a week, hourly). My stories were invariably filled with spies, secret agents, soldiers, warriors. For whatever reason, I was always portrayed as the dashing hero vanquishing the evil villain, who was usually identified as the kid in our class who we all hated for his attitude and real-life violence (he used to pick frequent fights with the doughiest kid in our class), his sense of superiority derived from a perception of wealth. We were all faculty brats; his dad was president of an oil drilling company.

Moral 1: Writing lets you get even.
Moral 2: A good writing teacher doesn’t put you in counseling for writing war stories.

Lesson Two: Fifth Grade
Nate—his dad was a librarian at the university where most of our parents worked—brought in a graphic novel called Elf Quest. It was book four of the series, the one where the elves have an orgy by firelight the night before running off to battle the evil snow trolls for the right to occupy an ancient elfin castle.

We huddled around Nate—and the book—and were absorbed by the masterful writing. Now, the nudity of the book was rather tame, as far as nudity goes, all roundness and tastefully placed shadows, but for us it was tremendous, titillating, frightening (somehow we knew our teacher wouldn’t have the same respect for the words, the words, nothing but the words). I recall that at the time, I thought sex was only one of two possible ways to have kids. The other was “sleeping together,” which I assumed was a rather benign and boring way of having kids. My understanding was that fertilization happened spontaneously by the proximity of a man and woman lying unconscious in the same bed. This book, though, convinced me that I definitely had to marry a woman who preferred the other method.

Soon after this day, the journal entries I wrote started describing the activities of Matt Ferrence, the elf, who was on a quest to regain the lost castle of his forebears. No fool—I understood the teacher mind—I excised the steamier parts of my stories.

Moral 1: You write what you read.
Moral 2: A writer must be conscious of audience, or end up getting yelled at.

Lesson Three: Ninth Grade
Journalism was the greatest class in school; you got your own laminated hall pass, to be used at your discretion (or, as the teacher saw it, to be used to hunt down hot stories for the school newspaper, “The Crimson Arrow”). We also got to go on field trips, to The Indiana Gazette, for example. Before going, our teacher informed us that a student we all knew, as well as all of her numerous sisters (big Catholic family) vomited at the smell of the printer’s ink. So be aware, she said. This stole a bit of the excitement from the trip. Or maybe it added some.

At the paper, we got to sit with a real professional newspaper person for the morning. I sat with some guy dressed in a torn, fraying insulated lining of a winter coat. He had a mustache. He had messy hair. He was quiet. He spent the entire morning pasting up the temperatures from around the country and writing the brief, four-sentence, incomprehensibly insensitive and racialized Chief Tommy Hawk blurb that described the weather. For example: “Brrr. Chief Tommy Hawk must do rain dance yesterday. Big sun not return for three days. Big rain make corn grow.” Things like that.

I was frightened of this man.

Our assignment, after the visit, was to write a paper describing what we learned. We were to be original and creative. I realized I had to write about this man who looked, as far as I could tell from my limited life experience, like an axe murderer. So I was creative. I described him in detail, as looking like an axe murderer, then I described all the things I learned from him, which actually were numerous. My closing to the paper was something like, “And I learned, most of all, that even if someone looks like an axe murderer, he may in fact have a lot to teach you.”

We had to read these papers out loud to the journalism class. My peers loved my paper. They laughed. They were inspired. My teacher scowled. She said, “That was highly inappropriate.”

Moral 1: Making people laugh is fun.
Moral 2: Honesty and creativity in writing isn’t always appreciated, even if asked for.

Lesson Four: Ninth Grade
There I was, in the auditorium of Indiana Junior High School, surrounded by the rest of the school, maybe 750 kids in three grades. My 9th Grade English Teacher, Mr. Sinclair (also my drama director) was introducing the annual English Award, given to the boy and girl in the school who had proven to be the best and brightest writers. He was talking about the winners, without mentioning their names—this had something to do with drama, with building interest and excitement. I don’t remember many precise details, but he kept using impressive adjectives like “brilliant” and “mature” and “creativity.”

Wow, I thought.

Then I won, as did Caren, a truly bright student who is now a captain in the Army somewhere in the South. After the assembly, my friends were congratulating me on the unexpected award (I got a lovely Cross pen and pencil set, which I soon came to learn was the regular gift/award for academic rites of passage; I could open up my own franchise, just by hocking the sets I’ve been given over the years). One friend said that when he started hearing all the laudatory (he may not have used that word) adjectives, he was wondering who the heck was going to win it, who was that great at English. He never would have guessed me.

Me neither. I had simply enjoyed English class that year because of the charisma and kindness of Mr. Sinclair. As a result, I wrote what I wanted to write. As a result, I wrote as well as I could.

Moral 1: Writing what matters to you brings reward, or at least Cross pen and pencil sets.
Moral 2: Mr. Sinclair was a great writing teacher, not that I could explain why.

Lesson Five: 12th Grade
I was tired of writing at this point. Who wants to write another boring research paper: intro, body, conclusion, MLA format, carefully selected quotes, blah, blah, blah. We were reading Beowulf. I had to write a research paper on something from the era, and I ended up with Viking burial mounds somehow.

Does a paper have to be boring? I asked Mrs. K.

No, she said.

So I can liven this up, make the language more fun, generally have fun with it?

Sure. That would be great, Mrs. K said.

My paper was titled “Mounds: Not the Candy Bar.” It was well-researched (I suspended my usual procrastination and started two days before it was due), but more importantly it was written with fun in mind. I cracked jokes. I mocked myself, the subject matter, everything in a masterful way that still allowed all my cool info to get through (did you know, for example, that the Vikings built their graves to look like ships?).

I got an A for research, for mechanics, for organization, for all the stuff that matters in a paper. I got a B on the paper, with only a single comment as means of explanation: “Inappropriate tone.”

Moral: Creativity in writing isn’t always appreciated, even when you get permission.

Lesson Six: Freshman Year
“You are my sunshine,” Rosaly wrote on my first paper for Freshman Writing. We met to talk. She told me not to worry about the assignments in the class. They’re designed to help students who don’t know how to write learn to write. She told me that I could write whatever I wanted, to be creative, to do what I wanted with my writing.

A bad learner of lessons (see lesson five), I followed suit. I wrote my heart out in the class. I did what I wanted with language, with subject, with creativity. I tested all the limits I could think of. Rosaly loved it all. She rewarded me with praise and constructive criticism. She rewarded me with an A. I thought of Mrs. K, and I laughed.

Moral 1: Well, so writing can be creative. This is like 9th grade again.
Moral 2: A good writing teacher lets her student find his own limits, his own voice.

Lesson Seven: 1999
An M.F.A. under my belt, a marriage looming on the horizon, I needed a job. Badly. I interviewed at a bank as a corporate trainer where I made the interesting decision to play my saxophone during the final interview.

For the last year or so I had also been writing occasional pieces for my hometown newspaper. They had offered me a full-time job that I had turned down, which I now needed; the corporate training wasn’t coming through for me, something about too many saxophones already on staff. I went in to talk with the editor.

I need a job, Sam, I said. Is there anything full-time here, any hope of anything?

The next day, I was meeting with the owner of the paper, and he was explaining to me how the paper was more of a family than anything. Apparently, this meant they could pay very poorly, since we were all family.

But I was grateful for the job; I was a professional writer, and suddenly found myself in the odd position of writing for the paper I had grown up reading. I found myself in the odd position of working with the axe murderer guy who did the weather: his name was Bob, and he turned out to be quite nice. He seemed to have jettisoned the coat liner, and he no longer did Chief Tommy Hawk. In some sort of ironic twist of fate, I ended up writing that blurb almost every morning, navigating the Chief’s iconic, nostalgic status in the community with my own sense of its rather obvious racism. Notably, Tommy now spoke in normal meteorological terms, stereotyped dialect wisely excised a few years before I arrived. I also found myself in the odd position of working with Mr. Sinclair, now John, who had retired from school teaching and filled some of his spare time writing a golf column for the paper, helping out in the morning with page layout, editing the Religion page.

John and I talked often. Despite all the writing teachers I had ever had, some splendid some terrible, he was my favorite. We golfed together. We avoided work on slow afternoons and talked, about teaching and writing and respect. He told me how he quit teaching to work for the paper when he was in his 20s, how a year later he quit the paper to go back to teaching. “You’re a fool,” the owner (the father of the current owner) told him. “You have to do what makes your heart sing,” he told me. “And that’s what shows in your writing, Matt. You really love what you’re doing.”

Moral 1: Writing is about love.
Moral 2: Teaching is about love.
Moral 3: Teaching writing is about love.

Closing Shop Thursday, Feb 2 2012 

Categorize under “news for no one.”

Looking at my site traffic, there just doesn’t appear to me enough of an audience to merit thinking about this blog anymore. I think I’m going to pull the shutters in a few days.

That sound you don’t hear? Disappointed fans.

A Brief Meditation on Good Fortune Wednesday, Jan 25 2012 

Something easy to forget:

This morning, my job was to sit in my office, in a comfortable chair, drinking coffee, reading a short story by ZZ Packer.

At the core, this is what professors do*, and I don’t think any amount of administrative bureaucracy, collegial disagreement, or professional frustration* overshadows the simple truth, blind luck, and tremendous privilege of this job.

We do what we want, based on our own serious interests, and get to have high-minded conversations with eager students about it. In the equation of our professional lives versus the rest of the world, I don’t think there’s any room for cynicism.

Now, back to the chair, to read some Annie Dillard.


* Substitute “titrate a solution,” “examine a global economic system,” “practice double-stop bowing” for “reading a short story by ZZ Packer,” depending on academic specialty.

* To be clear, I experience none of these, because I’m $%#^$% lucky to work where I do.

Enter the Laser Show Saturday, Jan 21 2012 

Classes reconvened in the middle of this past week. Since mine happen to all fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays this term, I only had one meeting with my students. The first day. Should I call it the dreaded first day?

Those classes got me thinking about day one actions, particularly because of the difference between how exciting these classes will be (they’re fun! popular! with wait lists!) and how exciting day one was not (eyes glazed as I go.over.the.syllabus).

In fairness to myself, the latter parts of each class weren’t bad. A definitional freewrite in one course set the stage for the work we have to do, and also revealed to me that students are generally enthusiastic about the subject matter but also have more or less no experience with it. A collaborative writing exercise in the other class worked well, got the class going a little, and also helped me gauge their skills going into the term. But the first half hour of the class drives me nuts: the syllabus.

I feel like I have to do it. Students want/need/ought to know what they’re facing, right? Get a feel for the nature of the class. Hear the overwhelming accumulation of the term’s assignments. Understand what their class-prep responsibilities are.

This day also sets the stage for the term, and I don’t like that I’ve made it into a perfunctory, blah, policy-dominated class. I want to be exciting. I want to have them leaving class saying, whoa this is going to be the most awesome class I’ve ever taken and I’ll put all my energy into it and man I feel sorry for the poor saps not in this course.

Sure, I could go the typical route: smoke machine, Pink Floyd lasers, thumping soundtrack. But I’d like to think up something fresher.


Experiment in Time Off Wednesday, Jan 11 2012 

There’s still another whole week before the Spring semester begins, and yesterday I polished off my syllabi. I’d been working and, worse, thinking about these syllabi since the beginning of the recess in late December. So now the plate is empty, and in an odd sort of academic hubris, I intend to take the next week off. Just off. Maybe not even check my college email. Certainly not go into the office. Definitely only read things I want to read. Absolutely not work on anything related to the coming semester.

Why does this feel like playing hooky?

Own It…Wait, Who Owns It? Saturday, Nov 19 2011 

Oh, I’m sure this isn’t something all that fresh. But it’s fresh to me, and supports my growing anti-tech persona. Which isn’t entirely accurate but, y’know, I am feeling rather oppositional to the rapid, unconsidered adoption of technology in education. Like that recent laugher in the Chronicle about how awesome it would be if a university would have the guts to ban paper books.

So, course management software — moodle, webCT, blackboard, desire2learn…you know what I’m talking about.

In using it, I’ve always wondered about certain aspects, particularly the gradebook. Partly, I just don’t like giving students access to an up-to-date, appears-to-be-official, running-tally of their scores. I think it gets in the way and encourages grade grubbing. But I’ve used it, because I also understand that students have a right to know what scores they’re getting…and I know many aren’t willing to actually write down their scores themselves, do the calculations, and keep track.

(Sidelight: really, I hate grading this way. Giving students grades throughout the term has little benefit, in my opinion. It moves them away from content exploration, denies any possibility of a pedagogy of curiosity, and more or less normalizes the learning-is-about-grades. I think the best way would be for conscientious faculty to just assign grades at the end of the term. We know what students should get, at least in humanities courses. We see their writing, listen to their in-class discussion. It wouldn’t be that hard to do, and I think it would be at least as accurate as the bit by bit approach we’ve all been forced to accept as the right way. Sure, in a lecture class of 1,000 my model wouldn’t work. So grade with accumulating points there. But why do it in discussion seminars? I think we do it totally so students don’t act all surprised at the end of the term, when they get the non-A. We grade to protect. Ourselves. And that’s too bad.)

I recently changed institutions. I taught at a big non-flagship, regional-draw kind of state school. Now a liberal arts college. That actually doesn’t matter to this story. I just like writing it down. This fall, I received notice from the old school that a student there was filing a grade appeal for a B. My first ever appeal. Now, truth is, I should have told my old chair: shove it. Not my problem anymore. I gave the student the grade the student earned. But, a nice guy, I provided information in several emails and phone calls that helped the chair and the composition director gather the data needed to explain to the student that, no, just because you wanted an A doesn’t mean you actually have the grounds to complain that you didn’t get it.

During this conversation, I mentioned that I didn’t have access to the scores from the semester, because I used the university’s on-line course management software to tally grades. Yesterday, I received an email from the composition chair with all of my data from that software. It was mined, without my consent, by the IT folk at the university. And I should mention, the appeal fizzled out two months ago. IT finally got around to gathering information that might have been helpful months ago.

As you might imagine, this is my center area of concern. Many, many faculty are being encouraged to use similar course management software. And this case makes it clear to me: You Do Not Own The Material You Post To These Sites. IT didn’t need my consent, because the data was on the university server, which meant the data belonged to them. This includes syllabi, grades, supplemental material. This includes, in my opinion, intellectual property that I generated and used as part of my professorship at that school. It burns me that they could access it without my permission, and it burns me deeper that this is probably standard practice. And it makes me totally crazy that we’re being encouraged to use this stuff, and we’re not thinking enough about who owns what.

For me: this spells the end of important data posted to course management software. I’ll either use my own blog sites (disconnected from my institution), or I’ll go old school paper. Call me paranoid (paranoid!), but I don’t think we should be ceding control of our intellectual work. How hard, really, would it be to have our stuff converted to an adjunct-run on-line model if we willingly post all of our teaching material onto an institution’s server? All we have is the good will of higher ed to protect us. And ask professors in Wisconsin about that…

Mid-Semester Ugh Friday, Oct 28 2011 

That’s where we are.
But I still love it.
I just ugh a lot.

Finish It Tuesday, Oct 18 2011 

An interesting article addresses the problem of l-o-n-g Ph.D. programs as a pathology supported by the job market.

Factory Farms, Factory Books Friday, Oct 14 2011 

I fully accept the title of curmudgeon and Luddite when it comes to e-readers. I’m starting there, just so you know.

I’ll open with this, too: a lot of the arguments for and against e-readers and digital books are familar. And I think a lot of them are more or less emotional on both sides: Pro — readers can download a whole library to a single device, thus saving backs (people always say this, I mean literally this, though I’ve never met a single person with a back broken by carrying books around). Con — books are nice to touch. Some arguments try to sound informed: Pro — digital publishing opens up the possibility for more productive self-publishing. Con — E-books wipe out the mid-list author by eliminating serendipitous book-shop browsing and publishers’ marketing imperative. But it all boils down to neat-o nifty: Pro — but the iPad is so cool! I want! Con — but that bookstore is so neat! They sell coffee!

I fall on the negative side of these aesthetic arguments, much preferring the social spaces of reality than the world-divorced “sociability” of digital communication. And that suggests an argument we don’t hear enough, even if it isn’t my main point this blog-a-day. Simply, digital and economic consolidation are removing our opportunities for certain kinds of social interaction. The move to on-line university courses, for example, presumes that content trumps spacial proximity. Digital communication is remote, not tactile. Budget cuts threaten nerdy social spaces like libraries. Progressively, we’re losing out on opportunities to meet, exchange ideas, come up with new common visions for our culture. Assembly, in fact, rarely appears as anything other than a political act or loitering, both of which can get you in serious trouble. Thus we arrive at the semi-cynical, half-paranoiac destination of digital spaces serving to consolidate power within a narrow band of social and economic elites who, in fact, are among the few who can actually afford iPads, even though plenty of people who can’t really afford them buy them too.

So here we are. Lately, I’ve grown quite irritated at the large number of academics and socially progressive individuals who whip out kindles and nooks and iPads and other devices with absolutely no sense of consciousness. They, in fact, are the people who I’ve heard make the sort of justifications I opened with. Truth is, they like the toy, want the toy, and find a way to either not notice potential (in my mind serious) issues inherent in the paradigm shift, or actively invent (in my mind spurious) reasons why they’re okay. Yet, this is the same cross-section of folk who tend to be acutely aware, even activist about, the ills of globalization and industrialization.

But somehow that doesn’t apply.

I just watched Food Inc. the other night, because I’m way behind on things, and I realized it’s about e-readers. Bear with me here. So, the chief issue of the film is to call attention to how the rapid industrialization of the American food industry has consolidated power to a few multinational companies. As a result, people don’t know where their food comes from, don’t have control of where it comes from, and don’t realize the extent to which profit motives and predatory ag-business practice has transformed the working conditions and lives of farmers, meat packers, and our guts, which are now more likely to be exposed to nasty e-coli infections thanks to irresponsible animal husbandry and unsafe slaughter standards. The crisis is largely at the level of epistemology, as in we just don’t know where and how our food winds up on our table. The consolidation of the industry serves only the interests of big business economics, at the expense of people.

So, the film urges, rise up and eat your way to a better system. Buy local, organic, fair trade. Realize that your choices affect the working conditions of real people and the literal health of the nation. Certainly, people are doing this, particularly among the e-reader crowd I’m addressing here. These individuals with professed love for their e-devices also buy fair trade coffee, belong to CSAs, care about the social politics of American big business, probably trend toward the socialist. And these same people sat in a room where a campus bookstore manager explained that digital textbooks were taking over, without a doubt, that students would in the future only be “renting” textbooks a term at a time via some digital interface, that the profits the big companies see in these textbooks makes them inevitable. They listened to the famous tale of a digital version of 1984 being sucked back from e-readers. They listened to the manager lament the change from ownership of text — of a physical object that cannot be sucked back remotely — to the rental of material that exists nowhere. And then they talked about how convenient their e-readers were when they travel.

To me, the connections between the food model and the book model are clear. In food, the farmer becomes beholden to multinational companies, simply produces a product without any sense of real autonomy. As the film shows, those who buck the system find it tough going — here lie lawsuits and bankruptcy. In publishing, the writer becomes the same vehicle for product. The e-reader produces the same consolidation of market that we’ve seen create trouble in other sectors. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to carry a library in your pocket, it’s cool to have a nifty device, but that device helps create a non-local, disconnected, anonymous, even-more-than-it-already-is-mass-market-driven publishing industry.

The lesson of the food world is that when we give up control and knowledge of our food sources we open up ourselves to potential abuses by massive companies. Our food suffers, and we suffer. I simply don’t understand why no one seems to be talking about that same potential in the digital marketplace.

Do we need CSAs for books?

Isn’t that what colleges and universities kind of are?

So how troubling is it that the book CSAs are accepting the e-reader with so little consideration?


Love It Friday, Sep 30 2011 

2000 students at this college.

Thursday night poetry reading with a poet of consequence.

Almost 10% of the student population is there, attentive.

I am amazed and thrilled.

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