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.


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