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A Pedagogy of Anal Retentiveness

To proudly proclaim to your students when you walk into the classroom that you are anal retentive and a bit obsessive is one of the many luxuries bestowed upon the Freshman Composition instructor. Personally I delight in the fact that those students that are brave enough to take my 1302 class after a harrowing experience the previous semester have been successfully infected by the contagion that is my own anal retentiveness. It gives me great pleasure when, after a month or two of nothing but dress slacks and drab neckties, the students see me stride into the classroom in rather pedestrian khakis and an almost scandalously informal short-sleeve shirt. I can easily register the shock on their faces. It is the same expression that greets me when I fail to show up to the door at precisely ten ‘til the hour. The routine and the infallibility of the system of norms that has been mechanically established every day for the past few months has been disturbed, and there is a little small voice in everyone’s head that is present in all good obsessives that whispers quietly that something is not right.

We have all had that professor, instructor, high school teacher, or coach that has figuratively beaten a rule that, although it may seem arbitrary at the time, becomes so intricately lodged in our psyches that it cannot be easily flushed out even in adulthood. The use of the subjective “I” in argumentative writing is something that is seemingly taboo in Texas high schools and when given the opportunity to use it in college writing those students that have had this rule successfully drilled into their craniums have a reaction that is nothing less than visceral. Rarely can they use the subjective “I,” even when it is explicitly permitted and most inevitably balk at the abyss of this infinite freedom of expression. This kind of “banal systemization” is not uncommon. I for one had the pleasure of having a philosophy professor at Texas Tech University scar me for life when he kindly informed me that “I had no opinion and no voice” and that all he needed to see in the papers I submitted were the synthesized points of view of experts, those that had a degree. This kind of intellectual hazing undoubtedly breeds anal retentiveness, but it is not a successful pedagogy.

A pedagogy of anal retentiveness necessarily involves the instructor becoming a contagion in regards to their students. I once, in a jocular manner and after several attempts at trying to explain why the phrase “a lot,” (one of my own pet peeves) at least in the particular paper, was a phrase that was not acceptable, resorted to telling the student that whenever they thought about or actually typed the phrase “a lot” in one of their papers they should instantly picture me grasping my temples in anguish and curling in the fetal position crying. The constant attempts to explain to this particular student that in the context of their argument, one that involved a potential audience of scientists, that the phrase would appear unprofessional were all in vain. The student was well-aware, after constant explanation, why the phrase was unacceptable, but nevertheless would forget and place it in their papers. It wasn’t until they, with the help of the image of me in anguish, were able to remember to refrain from using this phrase. In this situation, my own anal retentiveness regarding a phrase of no consequence had been successfully injected into the mind of the student. My own obsession revolving around the fact that when the phrase “a lot” is used in a paper that all is not right with the world, became a contagion.

Anal retentiveness, used in a colloquial sense, involves an obsessive attention to detail that stems from a desire for control and structure. It is the compulsion that fosters the correct use and placement of topic, transition, and return sentences and breeds logically cohesive paragraphs that stem from a systematic thesis statement. It is a thing of structure that allows for, if not uninhibited freedom, the possibility of the conditions for expression. For instance, every day my students are well-aware that I arrive ten minutes early so that I can write up the schedule and announcements on the dry-erase board. They are well aware that this “pocket” of time will be structured around preparation. They are aware, because I am a good anal retentive, that the schedule and announcements are always written on the far right hand side of the board. The structure and the progression of dates are well-known to them. Even the contents of this minimal portion of the dry-erase board, the schedule, can be deduced before I begin to write. It will always include what is already on the syllabus, which they may or may not have read. The key here is that they can know, only up to a point, what will fill the structure of the schedule. I might add or change a due date or put in a piece of homework, always only a little bit of course. The context cannot always be determined completely. There is always room for expansion or addition.  The content of the structure can never be completely saturated. They are aware what should be there, what form it will take, where it will be in proximity to other things, but they are never fully aware of the exact contents.

The structure of a student’s paper can be viewed in much the same way. The students, through banal systemization, read and listen to examples of how to answer the “so what?” question. They are well aware, at least I always hope, of the practical reason why this question needs to be answered. They are well aware, at least in relative proximity to other key components of their paper, where the answer to this question should “go.” They can narrow down the location, at least in the way I teach it, and know that it is after an overview of the issue, but before the thesis statement. The structure of the contents of the paper, after constant practice, is burned into the back of their brains, along with their lovely professor who becomes that voice in the depths of their head that prompts them never to leave a paper without a proper “so what?”. But the context can never be fully saturated. Like the They Say, I Say templates, there is always a subjective gap where, although the space where it occurs might be prescribed and determined, is always their own. The goal of a pedagogy of anal retentiveness is to be obsessed with structure. The goal is to know, at least to a level of certainty, where key components of a paper “go” so that an outline of sorts is manifest immediately and the paper becomes something like a grid for their thoughts and/or argument to be poured into and properly sifted. A pedagogy of anal retentiveness, contrary to popular opinion, is not totalitarian. To become a contagion for your students, so that you (or perhaps the textbook even) become a voice in their heads compelling them almost unconsciously to do something doesn’t restrict their ideas or their arguments. To know that your paper needs a “so what” and that it must go somewhere in the vicinity of “right here” and that it must logically connect a previous portion of your paper to the next, doesn’t eliminate the fact that the gap can never be fully closed. The student must always fill in the remainder.

Published in:Charlie Hicks |on April 10th, 2012 |2 Comments »

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 »