Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Power of Pretend

One of my most learned (and mosted aged) professors consistently spends half the class period lecturing on how to avoid writing like a student. He is the quintessential English professor of yore, complete with oversized glasses, tweed jackets, elbow patches, corduroy pants, and an occasional golf hat. You can tell he's been teaching since the 60s, which makes him an amazing resource for our little English department. Much of what he says is lost on the class, who are mostly comfortable in their roles as students.

At a school where disciplines like health and social work are the top majors, the attitude of the typical student is most likely that of "I can't do anything by myself yet. I'm a student." This is legally true for future social workers, nurses, or child psychologists. They can't counsel anyone, poke needles in anyone, or diagnose anyone's hyperactive child until they are properly certified, degreed, hired, and given whatever other "OK" they may need. But we majors in the humanities have an advantage! Since we do not work with live people, our studies and our future careers will always take place inside our heads or in the pages of a book. No one's body or psyche is going to suffer for our sophomoric conjectures and naive missteps. So we should try to have our own ideas and speak them as often as possible.

I see this not happening every day in English classes. Most questions and comments, even from those with voluntarily raised hands, begin with something like, "I may be totally wrong but..." "This may be in left field but..." "I kinda pictured it as..." No one will step right up and offer their ideas without qualifications. They don't even credit themselves with having ideas. Everything is an opinion to them, including their own thoughts.

But we've gone over this many times too, in the aforementioned prof's class. Not all interpretations are equal. Not all interpretations even make sense or can be accepted. Sure, there is a variety of ways to interpret a text, but if something is truly "left field" it is probably not a sensible interpretation. There is subjectivity in the study of literature to be sure, but it is not relativistic at a scholarly level. Students need to move beyond the "every opinion counts" ideology to "every well-argued theory counts" or something of that sort. Not only would that protect them from any zany ideas that may fly around the classroom, but it will enable them to think of their own ideas as worth being argued without hemming and hawing all over the place.

The lecture of Thursday last was on writing like a scholar, specifically. We discussed the baneful "intro paragraph" that needs to be thrown out, along with that freshman fear of using "I" in an essay. I had long since become conversational (heck I've always been conversational) in my essays, but this new license to overflow the one paragraph intro was liberating! Everything we had been reading in this course (and in any upper level English course) started with a long, multi-paragraphed, somewhat wandering, but mostly helpful and interesting introductions. And two semesters ago I had already begun to notice the disparity between actual published works and the formulaic 8-10 page paper of the college classroom. I had already begun to plot out my honors thesis in a non-traditional format, and I think I can now safely ignore the school-paper-formula for the rest of my undergraduate career.

This discussion of writing led into a discussion of teaching. Our professor did not finish his PhD on the first go, and back then you didn't need to in order to teach college. And fortunatley for him and his giant brain he went to Yale! They let you take the degree without a dissertation, and call it an M. Phil. Anyhow, he told us this story of the disappearing dissertation because he wanted to emphasize how he had not been comfortable moving from student mode to scholar mode. He went and started working instead of "dissertating," and he began by "pretending" like he knew what he was doing in front of a classroom. Soon enough, he was a pro at it. Only then did he go back to finish the PhD, and he did it easily because he was at home being a scholar.

The moral of this story (and of the "don't write like a student" stories leading up to it), was that we all need to just think like scholars, read like scholars, write like scholars, as best we can, and most importantly, believe that we are going to be degreed, pinned, sashed, tasseled, and hired scholars in the very near future! This isn't just a set of maxims for "thinking positive." This way of thinking about school is a major factor for an English student's success.

So I smirked and secretly thought about how I have been doing almost everything right. I have been playing the scholar. I have been flouting undergraduate writing conventions in order to say what I need to say. I have been speaking my ideas in class as if they are worth being argued. I had even made this connection of pretending for myself in some cases, and already become reflective about it -- I often refer to my grad school application process by saying, "Yeah, this summer I'm drafting my statements of purpose. I have to pretend I'll know what I'm doing with all their money, and pretend I'll focus on something specific to study."

So as much as I am DONE with undergrad, TIRED of being surrounded by kids, SICK of hearing them whine and make no sense (man, I'm a jerk today), I am feeling good about professorly prospects, especially now that I know I've got the right attitude about it. (The confidence part, not so much the getting annoyed with other English majors part.)

Now I have two papers to work on: One that compares criticisms of Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and one discussing the different art forms valorized by the aesthetic theories of various German Romantic Philosophers. My introductions will flow onto the second page, my voice will be in the first person, and I will make no apologies for my arguments.

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