Sans le Nom: Cookery, Rhetoric, and Other Forms of Pandering

"Now I call this sort of thing pandering, and I declare that it is dishonorable."Plato

"When a name comes, it immediately says more than the name." —Derrida

March 29, 2008: Let Us Pause

I hate doctors. 

I hate doctors because of something far more sinister than the fact they think nothing of injecting innocent people with cockroach crap

I hate them because I hate being medicalized, a process that begins in the waiting room where, upon entering, I go instantly from human being to manila folder.  In that room, I have my choice of reading material, so long as it's one of the 2002 issues of U.S. News & World Report, which, to me, is an insulting affirmation that the doctor off in his cave in that warren of rooms beyond the other door believes I am just like everyone else.  If he wanted to get the insult precisely right, he would mount a TV in a location high enough that no one standing on a chair would be able to touch it, tune it to Fox News, and conveniently lose the remote. 

Walking through the next door, the one that leads into the warren, I go from "Prof. Deering," as my students (and some of my colleagues) are mistakenly wont call me, to plain "Jennifer."  Infantilization is an important component of medicalization.  Later, I will get a follow-up letter in which I am addressed as "Mrs." instead of "Ms."  A reminder that I am, after all, dependent and not independent, another necessary component of medicalization.

In the exam room, I will be poked and prodded like a mere sack of flesh.  If I think to ask a question, the answer will be formulated to make me feel stupid within the purview of the doctor's genius—a status conferred on him by the fact he went to school for eight years beyond his high school baccalaureate.  Yeah, me too…jerk!


What brought all this up?

I had a dream last night that I went into the hospital (which was actually my cousin's old horse barn) for a hysterectomy.  Before getting to the OR, I had to undergo a procedure I imagine might be akin to de-lousing (I'm not sure what the point of that was, since we were in a BARN).  I listened to the doctors' grotesquely boring small talk throughout the operation.  When it was over, I had to clean up my own leftover "parts," which were a horrifying and incongruous mixture of sliced lotus root, nuts and bolts, and...well...chicken livers...uncooked.

This morning, as I was sipping my tea and remembering all this, I experienced a little shudder:  "What the Hell did that mean?" 

I decided that the dream was a little dirge for my ovaries, about which Wikipedia has this to say:  "The process of the ovaries shutting down is a phenomenon which involves the entire cascade of a woman's reproductive functioning, from brain to skin, and this major physiological event usually has some effect on almost every aspect of a woman's body and life."  Why not just call it "gynopause" instead of "menopause," since it seems my life as a woman is coming to an end in about seven years? 

More importantly, why does menopause have to be treated  and discussed like a disease?  Why do I get the feeling that once I start "The Change" I will become a manila folder once again and for all time?  That menopause will become the central theme around which all of my ills emanate? 

I don't want to take any pills for it or have it endlessly scrutinized in an exam-room-like conversation. I don't want to join a support group.  And I don't want to be consumed by something people (women) have gone through for millions of years.   

Grr.  *heels digging in*

It must be that time of the month. 

Cherish it while you still can…I guess.

March 23, 2008:  Monstrous Vermin
So, I finally went to the allergist, and I found the results "interesting." More on that later. 

First, let me confess to another of my many idiosyncrasies (besides the OCD, the FBI's toolkit-of-the-most-wanted, the fear of heights, the odd dreams).  I allegedly have a phobia of cockroaches.  I say it isn't really a phobia: I scream and run away, not because I'm afraid of them, but because I find them vile and repellant.  In other words, it's disgust and not fear.  I'm told by a certain person who lives in my house that it doesn't matter what emotion I experience, the fact that I act irrationally and uncontrollably in their presence makes it a phobia.  Harumph. 

There are logical reasons to revile cockroaches.  They're dirty.  They eat your stuff.  They cast long scary shadows when they're hanging out on the ceiling.  And, unlike other bugs who know their place and dutifully flee once they've been detected, cockroaches will chase your ass down.  If a so-called "phobia" is completely justified and perfectly rational, it is NOT a phobia.  But I am willing to agree that they gross me out.

So I'm sitting in the allergist's office going through the "dreaded" scratch tests, which, up to a point, weren't that bad.  But, then, I didn't exactly have the skinny.  I watched as the nurse stuck 22 needles into my arm, looking for a reaction to the substances being injected.  It didn't hurt, no big deal.  So when the doctor said, "It would be easier for me to tell you what you're not allergic to," I yucked it up with him, "Hardy har har,"  and he said, "Pollen and dust."  And then he went over the sobering list of what I WAS allergic to: 

all the molds,



wait for it…

wait for it...


From that point on, I was instructed on how to rid my home of molds, how to use the two nasal sprays I had been prescribed, blah, blah, blah. All of that went in one ear and out the other because there was no room for any other thoughts, save these:  "What in the Hell did you just put in my arm to test me for cockroach allergy?  What part of the roach did you use?  Its las patitas de atrás' (back legs, as the song La Cucaracha goes)?  Its brains?  Its wings.  Or, dear God, its poo?  Please tell me you did NOT just inject me with cockroach crap."  Scenes from The Fly flickered through my mind.  When they suggested I try allergy shots in an effort to attenuate me to my allergens, I politely declined.  But I was thinking, "Screw you guys, I'm goin' home" and waiting for my inevitable metamorphosis into Gregor Samsa

Happy to report:  no antennae yet.  

March 22, 2008: Roasted Okura

Okra, as it's known in most English-speaking countries, is another one of those vegetables (like turnips) that's often associated with the American South.  And just like the turnip, it actually comes from somewhere else, most likely Ethiopia.  It's a member of the mallow family and a distant cousin of cotton—another plant connected with the Southern U.S. 

Here in Arkansas, it is most often served battered and deep fried.  My grandmother coated the sliced pods in flour, salt, and pepper and sautéed them in bacon grease.  With either method, the possible health benefits of this vegetable are probably rendered null and void.

I gave up eating okra when I started limiting fried food because I had always heard that if you cooked it by any means other than frying, it would become notoriously viscous.  In Japan, where it is known as "okura," the pods are boiled and then stir-fried.  It shows up in bento boxes and ekiben pretty frequently.  I decided I wanted it in my bento, too, so I got down to the business of finding a simple recipe.  I finally settled on roasting it because it's especially quick and allows you to work on other things while you wait.  This recipe is so good, my husband and I fight over whether or not we've gotten an equal share.  

Roasted Okura
1 10 oz. bag of whole, frozen okra, thawed
2 t olive oil
kosher salt, to taste
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Pre-heat toaster oven or oven to 350 degrees.  Mix ingredients in a bowl.  Pour them out on a baking sheet in a single layer.  Roast until crispy on the outside (about 30 minutes).  Serve.

For a more Asian-style flavor, try Hiroko Shimbo's variation, which uses soy sauce and vegetable oil in place of the pepper and olive oil.    

March 21, 2008:  The More Things Change...
I collect grammar and composition textbooks by a single 19th-century author:  G(eorge) P(ayn) Quackenbos.   No one in the annals of history has probably been more suitably named for the job he would one day undertake—instructing our nation's "pupils" in grammar and rhetoric—than good old G.P.  He was a prolific polymath, having also written a history of the United States, arithmetic textbooks from primary to higher, a natural philosophy, and a French-English dictionary, among other things. 

At any rate.  His Composition and Rhetoric is my favorite of all, first "Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1854, by G.P. Quackenbos, In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States, for the Southern District of New York."  The latest copy I own is the 1884 version, but I've also got two from 1879. You might wonder why I would collect different editions of the same book.  I can assure you it isn't because I sit around all day studying English grammar.  Actually, it's the little scribbles the students made in the margins and inside the covers that fascinate me.  Fred Turner, of Malvern, Arkansas, wrote on these pages of the 1884 version when it was still fresh off the press.

This one on the left, from page 47, chronicles what must have been one spectacular snow ball fight to have distracted good Fred from the Norse elements of the English language:  "Jan. 16, 1885.  Snowed today.  May and I had a good time snow-balling.  Davis and Frank, June, George.  Club meets at May's to night."  I wonder if they were pretending to share the book in order to get the word out?  Who needs a laptop and Facebook to advertise an event when a book and a pencil will do?   



I'm not sure what transpired prior to this recording on page 189, to the right:  "Leila look at Mr. J and grinned right in his face."  I'm guessing "Mr. J" was their teacher and Leila had engaged in some sort of obstreperousness that she was daring the teacher to punish. 




 But my favorite of all is this one on the left.  Quackenbos has been going on ad nauseum  about the sublime in writing.  He never actually quotes from Homer, "who was the earliest…and most sublime poet that has written in that [being the Greek] language, his ideas being grand and his diction unaffected."  Instead he directs the reader to find his own sublime passages from the Iliad (I guess he hadn't heard of "Whow, don't tell") while he blathers about Jupiter thundering "from on high."   I'm pretty sure he wasn't being ironic. 

And while Fred doesn't seem to have given Mr. J or Quackenbos much of his attention during composition class, he has, on page 211, written the simplest, most elegant piece of unaffected diction I've ever read:  " Oct. 23, 1884.  Willia is angry with me."  

One hundred twenty-four years later, Fred's words strum break my heart a way Quackenbos could only hope for and probably never achieved.   Was Willia Fred's girl?  Did he hope to marry her next year, after they graduated high school?  Did he apologize to her?  Did she accept the apology?  What happened to all of them?  Long in their graves, did they die happy? 

Fred probably didn't need his composition class or Quackenbos's book to know how to turn a phrase.  As both Mr. J's and Quackenbos's 21st-century counterpart—writing teacher and textbook writer—I've made a statement that begs a question:  "If students don't need the class or the book, why am I here?"

*sigh*  These days, after a round of especially bad papers, I'm not exactly sure.  All I know is that more than 150 years after the first edition of Composition and Rhetoric, the role of the teacher and the textbook seems little changed and has equally little impact.   

March 14, 2008:  In a Safe Place
I am a responsible person.  I can be assured of that because, when I'm not doing my "professor" gig, I moonlight as a pet-sitter and, people, mostly friends, often call to reserve my services.  (—>Begin shameless plug and disclaimer:  Before anyone asks, please note that I can't take care of urban dogs—I just don't have the time they require—but I do livestock, country dogs, cats, birds, rodents, most reptiles, fish, hermit crabs, and, yes, even tarantulas—>end shameless plug).  So I know most think of me as reliable and trustworthy. 

Unfortunately, I'm also hapless.  

I'm taking care of some friends' animals for a couple days.  Last night, as I was changing into my pajamas, I decided to move the key to their house from my shorts' pocket to a safe place.  When I awoke from slumber this morning, I padded to the kitchen, absent-mindedly put my cup of water and tea bag into the microwave, and watched the cup go round and round in the microwave.  As I watched, the little angel and devil in my brain bubbled up in conversation at the morning mocktail party of my mind:

Devil:  [sidling up to Angel, glass of milk in hand] "So, how 'ya doin?"

Angel:  [rolling her eyes] "I'm lovely.  And you?"

Devil:  "S'okay."

Angel: "Have you ever heard of the Queen's English?"

Devil:  "Dunno watchur talkin' about, but I got a question for YOU."

Angel:  [watching the tea come to a boil] "Please, continue."

Devil: "Where'd you put the key last night?  You know, the one to your friends' house?"

Angel:  "Why, it's in a safe place."

Devil:  [with a sly grin on his face] "And where's that?"

Angel:  [sucking in air and then stunned in silence, mouth open, eyes agog]

Devil: "I knew you were going to forget.  How many times have you done this now?"

Angel: "Wh-wh-who invited you to this party?  I mean, really, can I see your invitation?" 

Before the microwave even dinged, I ran, panic-stricken, to my purse Big Damn Bag (from now on, we'll refer to it as "the BDB"), yanked everything out, and surveyed the damage for any sign of the key. 


So I spent the better part of the morning searching everywhere, tearing up the whole house.  I looked in every "safe place" I could think of: the Buffalo River Stash Rock (it has a small opening that leads into a huge chamber in the middle), my jewelry box, the ceramic art pieces I bought from the UCA Clay Club, my cosmetic drawer, the pockets of my robe.  I started to think that I must define "safe" very differently at 10 p.m. than I do at 6 a.m.

Still nothing. 

At that point, I had to go to class.  I worried and worried and worried and worried and worried.  Those poor cats: dirty litter, dirty water, and maybe no food.  What was I going to do?  So I came home in the afternoon, tore through the house some more, and finally decided to go through the BDB again, this time in earnest.  I pulled everything out—folders, papers, lipstick, and I'm sure a whole litany of things that might put me on some FBI list (duct tape, screwdriver, penknife, scalpel—I promise I only use them for good).  The last thing I pulled out was the computer pocket (yes, the BDB holds everything), and there it was.  I swear it was shining in all its dull brass glory.  

The next time anyone hears me proclaim, "I'm going to put this in a safe place," please stop me before I hurt myself. 

March 11, 2008: Hot Pot
Those of you who work with me every day have been following the saga of my possible allergies / asthma because I'm a big fat wimp and complain about it at every possible chance.  Yes, I finally got scared, exhausted, frustrated enough to make an appointment with an allergist.  I'll keep you updated (because you WILL listen to me whine whether you like it or not).

As a way to make up for this tragic flaw in my character, I'm posting a recipe for a Vietnamese-inspired concoction, based on traditional Vietnamese clay pot recipes.  It's perfect when you don't feel well and have lost your appetite due to a loss of taste and smell.  I use a stainless steel stockpot instead of a clay pot: a well-seasoned iron Dutch oven would work perfectly, too, especially if you used a charcoal pit.  But that's not exactly convenient.   

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I realize this recipe probably sounds highly involved, therefore, inappropriate to make when you're sick.  I should explain that I'm a big believer in "putting things back," i.e., keeping the larder full.  To that end, I like to cut up my own chickens (I have this dream of one day beating my grandma's time record for cutting up a single birdokay, it ain't reaching the top of Mt. Everest, but I'm a scaredy-cat modest sort).  Sometimes I de-bone the chicken; other times I don't.  But I always store whatever parts I won't use as the main dish (back, skin, bones, neckanything but the innards because, in my experience, they overwhelm the flavor) in the freezer in heavy-duty bags in three-pound increments.   Then, when I have room for another batch of stock, I use a ratio of a three-pound bag to four quarts of cold water to replace what I've used (adding aromatics, spices, etc., depending on the type of cuisine).  Therefore, I've not only got chicken scraps ready to make stock, but different types of pre-made stocks stored away.  One more caveat:  Western and Eastern stock-making techniques are pretty different.  Trust the recipe.

Vietnamese Chicken Broth
three-pounds chicken parts
4 qts cold water

If you have an electric stove, turn a burner to high.  Pour cold water into the pot, add the frozen chicken scraps, and put the pot on the high/already lit burner (sorry, I'm spoiled by my gas range—I'm trying to account for people who don't have such luxuries).  Once the water has come to a boil, allow it to boil vigorously for three minutes.  Turn the burner to low.  Cover and simmer for 1/2 an hour (seriously). Occasionally, skim the fat and scum from the surface (it helps to move the parts around to free all the scum).  Strain the liquid.  Let it sit overnight in the fridge, and then skim the hardened fat from the surface once again.  Freeze in three-cup containers, being sure to leave room at the top for expansion of the liquid. TIP:  Don't skip the skimming—you'll end up with off-tasting, cloudy broth.  And, remember, grease and animal fats do not belong down your sink drain, unless you enjoy seeing your plumber's...gluteal cleft (how's that for a euphemism?).  Spoon the scum and fat into a left over bread bag that you can tie up and throw away, and save yourself some moola (and having to withstand your plumbing technician's affaire de derriere).     

Charred Onion and Ginger (Aromatics)
2 yellow onions
1/4" section of ginger

Peel the skins from the onions.  Grill onions and ginger on high heat or, using tongs, hold over a gas flame until charred on all sides.  When cooled, rinse under cold water and peel off the charred outer layer of the onions.  Allow to drain and freeze in heavy-duty plastic bags, or use immediately. 

6 whole star anise
6 whole cloves
1 t pepper

In a skillet, toast the star anise and the cloves 2 minutes.  Place these in a spice bag and add 1 teaspoon peppercorns.  Or you could do the "Indian thing" by dumping the whole spices into the cooking broth and eating with chopsticks, thus avoiding the whole spices.  Placed in a small heavy-duty plastic bag, the spices can also be stored in the freezer.

1 c Vietnamese chicken broth
rice stick noodles to taste

Bring a separate pot of Vietnamese chicken broth to the boil.  Add rice stick noodles.  Turn off the heat and allow to cool/cook. 

chopped scallions
mung bean sprouts
Vietnamese tofu or extra firm tofu
Asian basil
sliced jalapeños
lime wedges
freshly cracked black pepper
shiitake or button mushrooms, lightly sautéed in sesame oil

The Actual Dish: The Hot Pot
3 lbs chicken (I use breasts), cubed
3 3/4 qts Vietnamese chicken broth
2 charred onions, sliced
1/4" charred ginger
3 3-inch ends of lemongrass stalks
1 T kosher salt
spice bag with toasted whole star anise and cloves and black pepper
cooked noodles
condiments set out for diners to pick and choose

Poach the chicken in the chicken broth with the charred onions, ginger, lemongrass, salt, and spice bag.  When the chicken is done and the dish is piping hot, remove the lemongrass.  Ladle the soup into individual bowls, add noodles to each bowl, and allow your diners to add their choice of condiments.  TIP:  Leftover rice-stick noodles will dissolve into paste.  Make only as much as you think you will need and DON'T add them to the leftover soup for later.   

March 9, 2008:  Hot Titus
"Hot Titus."  It sounds like the name of a beefy Italian porn star. 

If only.

Hot Titus is "spiced sardines in vegetable oil, salt added," product of Morocco, and it's my husband's favorite.  There's only one place to get it in Arkansas: the Asian market in Little Rock. 

Thank God. 

Because it would gag a maggot. 

Seriously, the cats run AWAY when he opens the can. 

He'd have to gargle with Pine-Sol to get it off his breath.

I need a hazmat suit and a gas mask to clean the sink after he rinses off the dish. 

I've been blissfully spared its noisome invasion of my oxygen supply for a couple months now, and I guess I kind of forgot why I promised myself never to take him to the Asian market again.

So, yesterday, I suggested we swing by the market so I could pick up some Thai basil and mint to make Vietnamese hot pot today.  Now, having been landlocked all of my life, walking into the Asian market, especially on a Saturday morning, is a bit of a shocker.  That's when they're expecting their biggest crowd, and that's when they get their truck load of "fresh" fish (How fresh can it honestly be?  We're 12 hours from the nearest coast).  And, since about ten people are in the back gutting all of it...well, like I said, it's a bit of a shocker.  So when I walked in with my Hot-Titus-loving husband in tow and smelled THAT smell, realization dawned:  "Oh, my God, what have I done?"  He made a bee line to the little African section, and, there, in the basket with my jasmine tea and my boxes of Choco-Boy were the yellow tins of sardines.  Abandon all hope. 

Here's how he eats it:  he coats a baking potato in olive oil, or whatever vegetable oil with the lowest smoking point we happen to have in the house, cranks the toaster oven to 5 million degrees, and cooks the potato to its carcinogenic best.  I think he knows it's done when the smoke rolls out the door.  Then, he tops that with Hot Titus and cottage cheese.   Last night, he tells me the best part is that the manufacturing facility never quite gets all the scales off. 

Okay, I have to stop typing now because I just threw up a little in my mouth. 

March 8, 2008:  Divorcing Plato

I think I should put the Dad Alert on this one:  "Warning!  This story may not be suitable for my father." 

In the part of my life that I spend asleep, I have been having a long, torrid love affair with Plato.  And except for a one-night stand with Barack Obama (as I told a friend, you know you've hit middle age when you start having sexy dreams about politicians) and, well, of course the guy actually asleep next to me, he's my only romantic interest. 

The back story is that he swept me off my feet during the 90's in Russia when he was working as a spy (I don't make this stuff up, people, I just dream it).  So last night we were at a party, and he told a really stupid joke.  Not offensive, just dumb, like a kid's knock-knock joke or something.  And everyone stood there looking at him like he should really stick to dramatic dialogs because comedy ain't his schtick.  When we got out to the car, he grabbed the steering wheel, leaned his head against it, and started crying.  I sat there with my arms crossed in icy silence, looking out the window and wondering why I had no patience for this sort of thing.  That's where the dream ended. 

But, then, I dreamed about him again later on.  He kept telling me we needed to go to Wal-Mart, and we needed to get there early, like 6:00 a.m. to beat the crowds, and we needed to get this and this and thiswrite that down.  I yelled at him, "You write it down."  I have this creeping suspicion that, somewhere along the way, we got married and either I didn't dream about it or I forgot the dream.  Trench coat and dashing good looks aside, I think I want a divorce.  Because, really, Plato is starting to get on my nerves.  I mean, I get this sort of stuff during the day.  What happened to the spark in our relationship? What happened to my philosopher-spy?

March 7, 2008:  A Teaching Philosophy with Chicken and Dumplings on the Side

Dear Colleagues, 

I am not only excited to have the chance to share my philosophy of teaching with you, I am just as excited that I will have the chance to read and learn from yours. 

I’d like to dive right in with a metaphor.  I’m sure this will stir fierce debate, but one of my first cousins once-removed makes the best chicken and dumplings in Arkansas.  She was kind enough to give me her recipe and even a little bit of advice on how to make it at one of our family reunions.  I attempted the dish one time on my own after that, and ended up with a gloppy bland mess not even a 'possum would eat.  I thought a lot about what had gone wrong, but the only thing I could come up with was that I didn’t roll the dough thin enough.  This past Christmas, I decided I didn’t want material gifts, so I asked my mom to help me learn to make chicken and dumplings as her gift to me.  When I showed the recipe to her, she thought maybe my cousin had accidentally left out baking powder.  I reasoned that, if we were rolling them as thin as my cousin had told me, maybe we wouldn’t need baking powder.  So we proceeded: my mom and I took turns—she showed me how to mix the dough and then let me take over.  She showed me how to roll it out, and then let me take over.  And I learned some interesting things I probably never would have figured out on my own:  don’t over-mix once you add the buttermilk, cut a paper bag into a square for your rolling surface, roll the dough as thin as you can get it, and throw tons of flour onto the dough as you’re rolling it out.  I was, also, able to teach my mom something:  a pizza cutter works better than a knife.  I have to say, our chicken and dumplings were even better than my cousin’s, not only because I added pepper (if it doesn't have pepper, it's not worth eating), but also because my mom and I will now share this memory.

This story demonstrates the way I think about learning.  In essence, the recipe and my cousin’s advice was like reading a textbook and listening to a lecture on how to make chicken and dumplings.  What I read from the “textbook” and what I heard in the “lecture” didn’t translate to a real-life set of skills that would aid me in making edible chicken and dumplings. We don’t actually learn anything in that model where the “sage on the stage” fills up our little teapots and we pour out all we’ve memorized onto the test only to find ourselves empty again.  Instead, what we need is, first, motivation to learn something new, and, second, someone who will model how to do it and then let us take over.  I really wanted to learn how to make chicken and dumplings (and nothing motivates me more than the fact that my mom is 600 miles away: chicken and dumplings are, as everyone knows, a symbol and a stand in for generations of love from our grandmothers to our moms).  And just watching my mom wouldn’t have been the same as taking notes, asking questions, and getting flour under my fingernails.  Reflection is also a key to the process.  If we don’t reflect on the way we’ve done things or what we’re being asked to do, we’ll always do things the same unproductive way: we’ll always end up with tough, tasteless dumplings.  We have to look back and think about the fact that we might have over-mixed the dough, or not added enough flour, or that maybe we shouldn’t have added the baking powder the recipe didn’t call for.  Another important principle is that it never hurts to put two heads together, even if neither one of them knows what they’re doing.  Luckily for me, my mom already knew how to make chicken and dumplings, but even if she hadn’t, we probably would have been more successful than if I had kept trying to do it by myself—and we managed to teach each other something—even though I’m a neophyte at dumplings.  And finally, the best time to intervene is during the process—not after the dumplings are ruined and there’s nothing else for dinner. 

The most difficult task for a teacher is motivating students.  Unfortunately, in Writing 1310 and Writing 1320, we serve a population mostly lacking intrinsic motivation; they don’t come to us with a burning desire to improve as writers or to learn to write academic prose, so we have to try to create motivation externally.  I do this by balancing fun with responsibility.  I try to make my classes active and participatory with freewriting, discussions, read-arounds, peer review, activities.  And they’re constantly working together—one on one, in groups of three or four, with Writing Center tutors, or with me.  So they’ve got a sense of audience, and they’ve got people who can respond.  Students will often say mine is their favorite class because their other classes are just boring lectures.  Okay, so I’ve motivated them to be there, I’ve engaged them once they are there, and I’ve gotten them to put their heads together.  But the other side of the coin is that they have to be responsible for their own learning because I’m not brewing their tea; I’m asking them to make chicken and dumplings and bring them to class to determine whether or not they’ve made a taste of heaven or a load of buckshot.  And as much as it may hurt someone’s feelings, if it’s shotgun- and not dinner-worthy, she needs to know, so she can make it better next time.  But, like I said, I want to intervene before dinner is ruined.  So I model freewriting, revise an introduction of my own on the document projector, or show them how I would research the isolating nature of technology.  And then I turn it over to them, let them give it a try, show them or let them tell each other where they’re doing it exactly right and where they need a little work.  And we reflect on what we’ve done, together, by keeping self-reflection logs:  “how do I feel about the grades?” “how do you feel about your grade?” “ why did this paper make a D?” “ what could I have done better as a teacher?”  “what could you have done better as a writer?” “how can I help you on this next paper?”  “how should we spend our next class meeting?”

So that’s my teaching philosophy in general, but what about teaching writing in particular?  I have two main goals for students in Writing 1310 and Writing 1320 (I like to keep it simple).  They are as follows: 

  • To understand that there are three things that drive every piece of writing:  who’s writing, for whom are they writing, and why they’re writing (writer, audience, purpose—the rhetorical triangle). 

  • To experience the writing process at least six times in the course of their lives, even if, ever after, they will continue to write something the night before it’s due.

As a rhetorician (not really an expressivist, not really a cultural/critical theorist), that first goal pretty much encompasses and sums up succinctly three millennia of work from Gorgias to Derrida.  Gorgias, being the Leontinian ambassador to Athens, said that he couldn’t write for Athenians the way he wrote for the people of Leontini.  Plato said the writer had to be ethical and knowledgeable in all subjects—“credible” in another word.  Aristotle taught that the writer had to find all the available means of persuasion:  facts don’t speak for themselves and what might convince the aged will have no impact on the young.  Skipping a few centuries, theorists like Burke and Derrida made it clear that the writer is divorced from her text once it lands in someone else’s hands—so make your purpose clear because you can’t speak for your written words.  And most people know that you won’t get the job if you use text-message style in your résumé, and if you write erudite, stodgy prose in your personal e-mails to an old friend, she might take it the wrong way (and, yes, I was the one who took it the wrong way).  The second goal is closely related to the first:  if a writer doesn’t give herself time to write, reflect, get feedback, revise, edit, and proofread, she’s probably skimping on one or more aspects of the rhetorical triangle, and that triangle will be incomplete:  kettle-breaking dumplings.  So the strategies I use to help students learn are pretty much the same strategies I use to help them become better writers:  They develop themselves and their repertoire through freewriting and reflection.  They gain an understanding of audience and purpose through peer reviews, read-arounds, coaching sessions with me, visits with Writing Center tutors who’ve graciously agreed to come to my classes across campus.  They work on higher order concerns—proving their point to the reader through solid reasoning—and lower order concerns—developing a style or a voice appropriate for the purpose.     

That, in a nutshell, is my philosophy of teaching.  I’m enclosing two recipes with this letter:  one for chicken and dumplings from my cousin (with additions I dictated from my mom), click on the thumbnail above, and another for the writing and feedback process I use with my students.  Enjoy!



March 3, 2008:  For Real?

I know I'm not the only dope in the world who, occasionally, needs someone to tell me what to think, so don't judge.  But, really, what is this business with Margaret Seltzer? Here is a writer who creates an alter-ego, gives her a pseudonym, writes a phony memoir, and then calls it "non-fiction."  I don't know whether to jump for joy or beat my brains out.  On the one hand, this could be a sign that non-fiction has finally achieved equal status with fiction, so much so that everyone is scrambling to get on the bandwagoneven would-be novelists.  On the other hand, it could be a case of another crappy writer who can only market her falderal as the truth-being-stranger-than-fiction because it's really bad fiction.  Or maybe our hang-up with the truth is getting in the way of some really good stories, to paraphrase another pseudonymous writer.  I just don't know what to think.

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About Me
I teach; cook; write; hike; read; dally; canoe; eat; write; rock 'n roll; eat some more; tumble and fall; dawdle; complain; bento; write; organize; watch movies; ignore e-mail;  renovate; write; curse computers; brew my tea dark and bitter; herd cats; live in Arkansas; Plato, Derrida, and rhetoric (yes, those are verbs); remain overly cautious; persuade; imbibe; GTD; and oh, yeah, I write a little. 

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All images and text copyright © 2004-2008 by Jennifer Deering.  All rights reserved.
E-mail me at sanslenom at msn dot com.

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