Archive for February, 2012

The Black Box and the Purpose of Freshman English

I tell my students on the first day of class when we go over the syllabus that it will not be the most stimulating conversation they have ever had. And I am always right. The first day of the semester, at least for me, is always an example of me attempting to put my best foot forward, but the result is always the same. At the end of the lengthy 50 minute lecture on when things need to be turned in, how many points you lose on your final grade for excessive absences, and that a participation grade doesn’t merely imply being physically present I always get the same terrified, doe-eyed looks.

The same terrified glances become even more pronounced when I bring out my black filing box that I use to store their final folders. I tell them plainly that at 10 minutes past the hour the box closes and doesn’t reopen, even if your folder isn’t in there. This seems unusually harsh for the students at the beginning of the semester and at first there are still students that rush in at 10:11 out of breath and pleading. But after the first series of papers the late arrivals all but completely cease.

Last semester, at the conclusion of one of my 1301 courses, a student approached me and made the statement that, although she thought the course was challenging, that one of the most rewarding aspects was that it made her more responsible. She claimed that my policies regarding tardiness, absences, and late assignments forced her to be more accountable in both her other courses and her part-time job. What the student seemed to take away from the class was not only a working knowledge of composition, but an introduction into academic life.

Thinking back on these things brings up a seemingly trivial question that has nevertheless been agonized over for a number of years: what precisely is the purpose of Freshman English beyond the teaching of composition?

In “The Problems with Freshman English (Only)” John Trimbur makes a number of scathing critiques in regards to the way that Freshman English is taught throughout the nation. Above all he claims that Freshman English should:

 “…help entering students survive in a hostile environment, crack the academic code, repair the damage done by high school English teachers, and enjoy writing. It should meet institutional needs by increasing retention and adding value to the ‘freshman experience,’ as well as certifying literacy levels and protecting the credibility of the undergraduate degree. Not only that, the course should meet employer needs for workers who can ‘communicate effectively,’ multitask, operate computers, and work on teams. It should respond to whatever literacy crisis is happening at the moment, negotiate differences in the ‘contact zone,’ denaturalize the media and mass culture, and stop the decline of public discourse by making a generation of slackers into responsible citizens who read the newspaper, vote, and participate in community service” (14).

In my opinion the first sentence of Trimbur’s statement resonates particularly because it addresses an often overlooked purpose to Freshman English (or at the very least one that didn’t occur to me before I started teaching). Trimbur’s first remark that a purpose of Freshman English is to “help entering students survive in a hostile environment” is interesting because it speaks to the dual nature of many of the policies and assignments that we include in our 1301 and 1302 syllabi. I can remember on a number of occasions while having my students write their Discourse Community Analysis how, not only did I begin to see how they were learning to incorporate the rhetorical appeals and intricacies of the argumentative strategies we discussed, but more importantly how it helped propel them into intelligent and tolerant classroom discussions with their peers.

On so many occasions I have read that the purpose of Freshman Composition is to introduce students to college writing. However, isn’t it just as true that the purpose seems to be the introduction into college itself as well? As Trimbur mentions, one of the goals of Freshman English is to “repair the damage done by high school English teachers.” Though I do not take such a harsh stance, isn’t it true that, along with teaching students that academic writing doesn’t take place in a vacuum, but is contingent on a specific audience, that we also try to impress upon our students the fact that this is college and that success in any course relies on personal responsibility and diligence, as does life.

In “Tips for Freshman Academic Success” Paul A. Heckert lists the following things as crucial for incoming college students:

  • Take responsibility for yourself. You may be on your own for the first time. No one will wake you up in the morning, remind you to go to class, make you start that assignment early enough, or bail you out when you screw up. It is your responsibility to do what you need to do.
  • Motivate yourself to do well. Without the motivation, you won’t do the work, and you will fail. The motivation to do well has to come from you. If you are truly not motivated, consider postponing college and working at whatever job you can get. Then start college when you are motivated to do well.
  • Get counseling, if you need to resolve personal problems that are keeping you from doing your best, . Most colleges have a counseling center.
  • Go to every class. If you were up too late last night studying or socializing, you will be tempted to turn off the alarm and skip that early class. Drag your tired body out of bed, get dressed, and get to class. If you attend regularly, professors will be more understanding if you really are sick or really need to miss class.
  • Do the work. Do all assignments to the best of your ability and turn them in on time. Read the syllabus to find what your professor expects, then meet the expectations. Plan on working at least two hours outside of class for every hour in class. Doing well at anything in life requires hard work.
  • Do the work efficiently. Find a study technique that works and use it. What worked and allowed you to get by in high school might not work in college.
  • Solve your own problems. You will have problems; that’s part of life. Don’t call Mom or Dad to fix everything for you. Get help when you need it, but part of becoming an adult is learning to do things for yourself. (If you are a parent reading this, stop being a helicopter parent. Give your son or daughter the gift of adulthood.)
  • Find a balance. Work hard, but have fun too. Make friends. Find time to play. Just don’t play so much you neglect your work.
  • Exercise regularly. Your brain is part of your body, so you cannot have a good brain in an unhealthy body. Be physically fit. Avoid gaining the freshman fifteen. If you have a regular exercise program, keep it up. If not, start walking, running, or some other aerobic exercise.

With the exception of Heckert’s ambiguous workout routine listed above, most of the aforementioned suggestions are things that we teach, although sometimes indirectly, in Freshman Composition. I have personally begun to include workshops in my classes that are devoted solely to making schedules that outline when they are able to work on their 1301 and 1302 assignments, while making sure that manage their other courses and work schedules.

However, I think one of the most important things to remember from Heckert’s piece is the idea that 1301 and 1302 instructors need to avoid being “helicopter parents.” Though I think it is interesting and helpful to think of Freshman English as an introduction into academic life, it is essential to recognize that attempting to regulate too much is detrimental. One must remember that when the black box shuts, it stays closed.

Published in:Charlie Hicks |on February 27th, 2012 |4 Comments »


Idly poking a crouton cube westward across a salad plate, the Candidate tells us the importance of attending college in an international setting.  I stare at the flaccid Earl Grey teabag, drying on my saucer.  What about all of my domestic commitments: the relationships, the contracts?  What about my finances (weekend Expedia trawls yield several-thousand dollar answers to such lingering European travel questions)?  The impossibility of it all is overwhelming; it is too late for me.

“There is so much worth in experiencing higher education abroad,” the Candidate says, chasing the words with iced tea.

I nod, I smile, I utter a monotonic acknowledgement.  It is not that I am dissatisfied—or disinterested—with what I hear.  It all just sounds so, well, foreign.  And despite my troubling penchant for articulating blind responses, I can neither agree nor refute the Candidate’s statement.  I mean, I want to agree, I really want to, but I know absolutely nothing of the matter.  Silence.

I twirl my water glass and watch the vortex clink ice shards against each other.


Does a student have to learn abroad in order to garner an “international education?”  Granted, one cannot replace the tangible sights of standing, crane-necked, in the nave of a Florentine cathedral, or the oceanic aromas of fresh seafood paella in Valencia.  There is no simulacrum of experience here.  So, what of viable alternatives?  Answers exist but I do not have them.


Monday, February 13th.  A piece by Ian Wilhelm in the online version of The Chronicle of Higher Education stands out with the bold-faced headline: “Budget Presents Mixed Picture for International Education.”  While the article’s scope aims more to governmental-fiscal matters, I found myself immediately drawn to this line: “The Obama administration is seeking a small increase of $1.7-million for the program, primarily to help disadvantaged students develop ‘global competencies.’”  ‘The Program’ in question here is the well-known Fulbright Program (“the U.S. State Department’s flagship academic-exchange opportunity,” according to Wilhelm) and this conspicuous line, albeit submerged in the succinct text, never further matures.  ‘Help,’ ‘disadvantaged,’ ‘students:’ these words all mean something to me as an instructor, however.  I am certainly a proponent for government programs, and especially those beneath the vast umbrella of Education, but can these aforementioned ‘global competencies’ develop locally?  My thought is seemingly contradictory, no?


Those close to me already know of my daily involvement in a photo-sharing blog called  Here is a simple description: the site involves members, from all around the world, posting just a single photo every day.  The company began, and is still based, in Edinburgh, Scotland.  In a series of electronic communiques, I interviewed company founder Joe Tree.  Here is the most relevant excerpt:

BC:  How many different countries are represented on Blipfoto?  I thought I remember reading somewhere that it is over a 100; is that right?

JT: Blipfoto currently receives visitors from 176 countries. (I must admit I had no idea there were even that many countries on the planet but incredibly it seems there are more than 190.

BC: Is the reason primarily logistical for the site maintaining an “English Only” policy?  As in, the company is based in an English-speaking nation and employs mostly English-speaking engineers and thus has to be able to monitor the language of/in the posts?  Or can a member based in Paris write all their accompanying words in French, a Brazilian in Portuguese, and so on?

JT: It’s all English speaking no matter where you’re from, and that’s entirely for logistical/practical reasons.  A really important aspect of Blipfoto is the community and content moderation, where material—or behavior—which falls outside our guidelines is removed…the main reason we disallow other languages is because we need to be able to understand something to judge whether or not it’s appropriate, and at the moment we don’t have the resource to view other languages.  We wouldn’t be able to provide any email or forum support to non-English speaking users either, which would also be a problem.

BC: Many websites (I’m thinking of Facebook which is not a fair comparison, I know) have links that allow for content to be viewed in another language—is this something Blipfoto has or is working towards?

JT: It wouldn’t be a gigantic job to translate the functional/instructional bits of Blipfoto into other languages, but I doubt we’d ever do that with users’ content.  We do plan to move into other languages in the future. When we do, we’ll have to think as carefully about the cultural aspects of those new areas as we do about the practicalities mentioned above. It will almost certainly depend on people native to our new geographical areas to support and nurture those new parts of the community.  We are actually running an experiment at the moment with a Japanese magazine aimed at Japanese people learning English. Their readers are being encouraged to post on Blipfoto in English as a way to improve their written English. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

BC: As the whole site revolves around the notion of posting just one photo per day within this advertisement-free, clean aesthetic, how does the role of the image relate to the role of the word?  Does Blipfoto represent an arena where written language is becoming less relevant?

JT: No, in fact I think it’s quite the opposite. Take the words away from Blipfoto and you’d lose more than half of what makes it wonderful. I’d say that only a minority of Blippers are driven by a keen interest in photography—most simply use the photograph as a cue to tell a story, record a moment or start a conversation. The technical or aesthetic quality of the photo has surprisingly little effect on one’s ability to do all those things—the written narrative is often just as (and sometimes more) important. Many users have commented that they’ve tried to keep a blog elsewhere, before discovering Blipfoto, but have never been able to stick at it the way they do here. I think the reason for that is the balance between the photo and the words—a balance which each user can shift on a day to day basis depending on their mood.

What is happening here, exactly?  I think Tree’s third response is fascinating and telling: the site’s expansion will rely on local individuals in a specific cultural framework to maintain any forthcoming changes.  In short, global networks boil down to the involvement of local entities.  Again, what else is occurring in this dialogue?  Quite simply, Blipfoto affords the opportunity (to employ the same word as Wilhelm) for one to place themself into an acceptable paradox: sailing in the vast international ocean while still casting out a local anchor.  Inane nautical metaphors aside, though, can one see any danger in operating within English-language-only environs if it allows monolinguals to take their first step into a much large realm?  In other words, I am not advocating some English superiority, but for those that currently know only English, a place like Blipfoto exposes them to international experiences from real people.  I know this example is singular and very limited but my goal is to illustrate a perceptible ‘replacement.’


Thursday, February 16th, 9:47AM: my first English 1301 course of the day.  I sit on the long table in the front of the classroom because it is more casual this way.

“How many of you speak another language?”  Something like a third of the hands sprout up.  I tug my tie-knot and learn.  I learn about photographing muscle cars in the UK.  I learn about the woes of transportation issues on the diverse UTA student body.  I learn about international power-lifting competitions.  I learn about playing a cricket match in India.  I learn.


Sunday, February 19th.  The second most-read article today on the Chronicle site is “In Study Abroad, Men Are Hard to Find,” by Karin Fischer.  In the piece, readers become acquainted with gender-based enrollment issues in international education programs.  At the risk of sounding overly selective, though, it is one of the last lines that intrigue me the most: “’If you study abroad, you’re connected with everyone else,” Mr. Becher, a junior. ‘It’s like you’re in a little club.’”

I am perplexed: the forging of far-reaching links but that only happen within very exclusive borders.  This feels like an accessibility problem.


One of my Blipfoto subscribers from Sweden, B-, speaks the most curious brand of English (reminiscent of Alexander Perchov in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel/film Everything is Illuminated). In response to my positive comment on his landscape shot, he thanks me “for my courtship.”  In an exchange on capitalism, he claims some nations are “ill with disease-profit.”  Finally, when trying to implement the American colloquialism “through trial and error,” he produces “through trail and terror.”  These are some of the most beautiful phrases I have ever read and this is not a hyperbole.  Even though B-‘s posts are often prefaced with disclaimers about feeling deficient in English, with B-, I become the student, I become the learner of international poetics.


Is “domestic isolation” a detriment to my formation as an Academic?  Conversely, maybe the question could/should be phrased this way: is international study mandatory for my doctoral success?  How do I balance the facts that I want to experience and engage in/with other cultures, other countries, but am facing a persistent self-bemoaning stemming from lack of time and/or funds?  My aim is not a sour-graped report of my desires, though the logic of that perception is not entirely faulty.  Rather, this is just recognition that my international education, in some adapted fashion, is already underway.  There is international access all around me.  Right here.

Published in:Brian Carroll |on February 20th, 2012 |6 Comments »

Paint cans, tattoos, and Internet napalm

On the first day of class, my freshman English students generally encounter one of two things: the paint can or the Bugs Bunny cartoon.

In the paint can scenario, I ask a brave volunteer to open an old container of latex that I have brought into class. When (s)he figures out that a tool is needed, I offer a pocketknife, only to berate the Brave Volunteer about safety before the attempt gets too far under way. Yes, I tell the class, the knife can open the container—but at the risk of breaking the blade or (not incidentally) slicing through one’s tendons.

In the cartoon scenario, I show a clip from the 1951 Chuck Jones feature Rabbit Fire in which Bugs fends off Elmer Fudd by declaring that it’s actually duck-hunting season. This leads to an exchange between Bugs and Daffy consisting of shouts of “Wabbit season!” “Duck season!” until a bamboozled Daffy declares: “I say it’s duck season, and I say, ‘Fire!’ ” We all know what happens after that, of course.

True, I say, Bugs wins the argument—but the discussion consists largely of shouting and rhetorical deception. I tell my students that I want to enable them to argue in ways that go beyond yelling and verbal sleight-of-hand. Likewise, as with those who open paint cans with pocketknives, neophyte writers can usually “get the job done”—right up until the day when something goes wrong and they are left metaphorically bloody-handed.

All of this is an effort to impress upon my students that despite the apathy or even antipathy with which many of them approach English classes, the subject matter really does have real-life implications and applications—something that was underlined by a recent episode in New York state.

In late January, an assistant news editor at The Spectrum, an unofficial student publication that serves SUNY Buffalo, participated in a pro-con opinion feature on tattoos. In a column headlined “Why Put a Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari?” , the 19-year-old editor (who shall hereafter be referred to as Youthful Writer) urged her fellow female students to consider the attractiveness question. “We [women] hold some serious power in our hands, because—as corny as this sounds—we hold the world’s beauty,” she wrote. Tattoos? They’re indelible, unnecessary, unclassy, and unproductive in terms of self-improvement:

“Invest your time, money, and effort into a gym membership, or yoga classes, or new clothes, or experimenting with different hairstyles if you’re craving something new with your body, not a tattoo,” Youthful Writer advised.

“I promise, it will be a much more rewarding experience, and you won’t find yourself in a rut when your future grandkids ask you what’s up with the angel wings on your upper back as you’re in the middle of giving them a life lesson on the importance of values and morals.”

Then the sky fell in.

“I woke up today and had 938 hate mails, 646 nasty Facebook comments, and dozens of mean-spirited tweets,” the writer stated in a Feb. 2 follow-up column. One person sent a comment consisting of two words: “stupid cow.” Twenty-one people referred to her as what euphemistically might be termed the C-word.

Some of the less thoughtful comments posted with the original essay, which featured the author’s picture:

■ “This woman needs a kick in her ugly ass face. She probably wrote this while getting a pedicure on her hobbit feet.”

■ “I would like to apologise for whoever brought you up (I imagine it was a shallow, vapid excuse for a human being who you call your mother) . . .”

■ “This article was written by a self-righteous, solely self-interested little twit . . .”

■ “[Y]ou are NOT a Ferrari. You are, at best, a 2003 Dodge Caravan. . . . Get over yourself, and get to work with that gym membership you suggested other people get. You look like you could use some exercise.”

■ “You are a prime example of the narrow minded idiots that try to enforce their own personal rules onto another human being. Please take your own ‘values and morals’ and shove them up your retentive ass.”

So was this a prime example of a knife-and-a-paint-can episode? Ironically, I’m not sure. I might like to think that a semester or two of my freshman-comp pedagogy, or some wisdom from my years as a copy editor on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s opinion pages, would have helped Youthful Writer avoid some of the verbal napalm. But perhaps not.

Frankly, had this piece been submitted for my publication approval during my journalistic days, I would hardly have blinked. The rules and expectations for a newspaper opinion column are different from those for a classroom researched position paper—less space to work with, less emphasis on things like naysayers and the careful positioning of oneself in an intellectual conversation, more leeway for personal expression. In fact, what struck me when I read “Why Put a Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari?” was its rather restrained tone, compared to many of the reactions to it. (In fact, I see more incendiary speech on an almost daily basis on my Facebook feed.)

Perhaps the real lesson of this episode for our students is the importance of understanding the audience—the intended one and the unintended ones. In her follow-up column, Youthful Writer said she did not anticipate the effect of her words in the viral Internet world: “All this hate has shaken me. I never meant to be vindictive toward an entire subculture. That’s why its response was so unexpected to me.”

And for those of us who try to help students understand and master the intricacies and power of language, this is a first-class example—drawn from the experience of one ordinary collegian—of the rubber-meets-the-road applicability of those seemingly ivory-tower lessons on argumentation.

Published in:Alan Cochrum |on February 13th, 2012 |5 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Charles Dickens

English Matters began with a 300th-birthday tribute to Samuel Johnson in 2009, and makes its belated-phoenix reappearance today to mark the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens on Tuesday 7 February.

Like Dr. Johnson, Charles Dickens is a huge figure in English studies, so large and various that it’s practically impossible to sum him up. You know an author is great when other great writers spend so much time dissing him. “Dickens knows Man but not men,” complained Henry James, a subtle distinction: basically, Dickens didn’t get out enough in the social circles that James yearned to dine in. Oscar Wilde snarked at The Old Curiosity Shop: “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” And what was Virginia Woolf implying when she said that George Eliot’s Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people?”

Among great English novelists, George Orwell most admired Dickens, but with qualifications: “Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters.” Orwell specifies lots of minor matters. However, he goes on to say that “the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.” Orwell was therefore fascinated and appalled by the images of (literal) class warfare in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens, who hated injustices perpetrated by the rich and powerful, hated the savagery of the great revolution against the rich and powerful. Of course, one imagines that the leftist-crusading author of Animal Farm would be especially drawn to such a contradiction. But it points to an odd dynamic about Dickens: that his best-known novel is in some ways his least typical, and gives an impression of him as a kind of reactionary.

Is A Tale of Two Cities “written for grown-up people?” I read it in the 8th grade; it followed Silas Marner (7th grade) as the total of my middle-school exposure to Literature. I loved it; it’s all plot, and it offers gorgeous opportunities to read its final sentences in the voice of Ronald Colman. But as Jeff Daniels says in The Squid and the Whale, it’s “minor Dickens.” The major novels are the ones where he refracted the boundless pain and titanic energy of his own personality through a limitless set of characters. “After Shakespeare, God has created most,” said Alexandre Dumas père, but he was too busy creating a lot himself to keep up with the even greater creations of Dickens.

I read David Copperfield on my own even before the 8th grade, struggling through a world so unfamiliar to me as a child of 1960s America that I envisioned almost everything about it wrong, picturing Great Yarmouth as something like the Jersey Shore. (I even thought the Peggottys were black, which actually says a lot about parallels between race in America and class in Britain.) David Copperfield, like the earlier Oliver Twist, is a book about gentility in eclipse. David’s birthright has been lost in the shuffle, and he descends into an urban working class below which there is no obvious safety net. Orwell thought Dickens bourgeois, which he certainly was; Orwell remarks on how “it is questionable whether he really regards [the working class] as equals.”

Yet all of Dickens’s class squeamishnesses have to be seen as relative. In Anna Karenina, written well after Dickens’s death, Vronsky goes to the opera and muses

God knows who they were; the same dirty crowd in the gallery; and in all this crowd, in the boxes and front rows, there were about forty real men and women.

Perhaps Tolstoy is satirizing Vronsky’s own prejudices, but I doubt it. For Tolstoy, the middle class is barely human; society consists of a few aristocratic families and some rustic, idealized muzhiks. For Dickens, despite all the sentimentality, despite Tattycoram and Little Nell and Tiny Tim, every range of the middle class exists, and those trying to hang on and make a living against the odds exist most of all. The poor exist, and the homeless, and the mentally handicapped, and the impossibly pretentious, and the bullies, and the victims, and the ciphers. Everyone, in short, that you never hear about if you’d rather be reading Jane Austen :)

Great Expectations crystallizes the anxieties of class better than any other Dickens novel. If David is degraded by his time in the bottle warehouse, Pip is degraded by his own desire to leave the working class behind. Blacksmith Joe Gargery may be a caricature of the kind of “men” that Dickens really didn’t know any better than he knew Henry James’s minor nobility. But he’s a damn sight better person than Pip, and Pip knows it, and Pip can’t help despising Joe anyway, despite and because of Joe’s essential decency.

If English novelists have tended to look at Dickens with various attitudes fashioned from envy – disdain, embarrassment, indignation, condescension – writers in other countries have just wallowed in his influence. Mark Twain when young seems to have had a mancrush on Dickens, and it would be evident from his writing if he hadn’t admitted as much. Herman Melville shared Dickens’s histrionics, his panoply of characters, his tendency to lapse into blank verse. And many a European writer looked to Dickens, as earlier generations had looked to Walter Scott, as the pattern of what one could do in fiction. This includes Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (the latter’s range of social reference resembling Dickens’s as much as Tolstoy’s differed), Hugo and Zola, and perhaps most of all Proust. It may seem preposterous to connect Proust to Dickens, but in characterization and satire, Proust was a positive disciple. The “petit noyau” of the Verdurins, in Proust, is an homage to the Veneerings’ circle in Our Mutual Friend, and Proust’s habit of reducing minor characters to verbal or physical tics (think of the narrator’s aunts who talk to M. Swann only in recondite allusions) is a perfection of Dickens’s method.

When I was young, the distinguished Welsh actor Emlyn Williams came to New Jersey and gave a reading, in full dress and character as Charles Dickens, from Dickens’s works – much as the novelist used to do on continual speaking tours himself. Williams was by all accounts a frosty, inaccessible man; Dickens could strike people that way too. They were both larger than life, surrounded by myths and pretenses, anxieties and baggage. Without dropping a smidgen of character or a syllable of prose, Williams read his way through his pieces, leaving an effect of great technical mastery and considerable personal mystery. Dickens was apparently also like that. As a middle-aged celebrity of great wealth and unmatched fame, he would sometimes walk from his estate in Kent all the way to central London and wander the haunts of his childhood by dark, then walk back to Rochester by dawn. It’s impossible to know what drove him to create so much, and hard to empathize with him as a person. That’s OK: all you really have to do is read him with appropriate abandon.

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 5th, 2012 |3 Comments »