Wednesday, February 23, 2005

An Ode to Tamara

Having successfully completed all 19 items on my response-avoidance list (and #20, posted by our anonymous blogger), I turned today to my student essays, refreshed and invigorated.

I opened them randomly (#2 on the list of 19) and read the first line of essay #1: "If you really wanna please me, you've only got to cheese me."

As Devin writes his Ode to Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, ostensibly for an Anonymous reader but really with one reader in mind—that is, me or She-Who-Must-Grade—so too I write An Ode to Tamara, a blog ostensibly for my Anonymous readers but really with one reader in mind—that is, Tamara or apeppermintygirl. (See profile.)

Yes, that’s right, I dedicate today's blog to Tamara, who is well in the running for the WCJ Blogger of the Year award. (I know, I know, we hadn't technically announced that award yet; we're currently in talks with Development about endowment money.) And so, today, I resolve to respond to all the questions Tamara has posed over the past couple of weeks that have not yet been answered. (Several questions did receive responses, so I am omitting those.)

I do this in recognition that Tamara, dear reader, you are my audience. So I write to you. And to whoever else may be reading, of course—but not directly, since I don't technically know you're there, Anonymous, or what your questions or observations might be.

So, play theory, from a post way back in the days of Kevin Dvorak. I'm assuming Roberta is referring to some manifestations of activity theory and, while I have some ideas about activity theory, I won't venture them here, since I know other readers, who shall remain Anonymous but whose initials (as Pat Hartwell used to say) are Neal Lerner, could answer this question better than I.

Next, the observation that writing centers might be "parentheses in the academic sentence." What a cool way to think about it, especially if you're a parenthetical lover (and by that I mean a person who loves parentheses and not the other kind of parenthetical lover; for having been both kinds, I have to say I prefer the former and don't have much good to say about the latter.) But, Tamara, I want to spend some time with your concern that Gardner and Ramsey's extracurricular learning places certain kinds of student populations in parentheses—a potentially problematic placement, as you point out. Specifically I’m going to wonder why we value the curricular so much and why we would presume the extracurricular represents some sort of demotion. Anne Ruggles Gere published a terrific piece in CCC a few years ago entitled “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: An Extracurriculum for Composition” (or something very close to that). (Pretend to insert hyperlink here.) In it, she briefly traces the history of women’s literacy groups and, in so doing, she reclaims this term “extracurriculum,” wresting it from the patriarchal grip that until recently left the term synonymous with fraternities and secret societies and the like. She basically says, what happens when the extracurriculum exits Harvard Square and hits the streets? Or, even more to her point, when it winds up around the kitchen table? It’s pretty powerful to think about. Claiming an extracurriculum for writing centers may potentially be a way to think again about the central/marginal tension that has taken up so much discursive energy in writing centers.

Finally, to the questions posed to my own President’s Day post: censorship and troubling student writing. A little truth-telling here: I worry. . .

. . .about figuring out how to talk with my students about Nabokov’s Lolita. Half-assed solution: We read Gatsby together as a class. Lolita becomes one of several options for novels they can read on their own and discuss in small groups as part of their final anthology projects.

. . .about a freshman student I taught years and years and years ago, who committed suicide shortly after the end of our semester together and whose writing assignments were gathered as evidence/explanation. Of what, I still don’t know. Half-assed solution: I hand over every scrap of paper he ever turned in to me and leave teaching altogether, albeit briefly and for more reasons than just that one, but that is a big one. I miss teaching and return a couple of years later. (Anybody else read Nancy Welch’s article in the new CCC yet?)

. . .about a recent student of mine, a guy who sounds very similar to the one you describe in your post, to whom I never quite had the presence of mind to say, Speak. I will listen, even when we don’t agree. And I am sorry you are so angry/sad/frightened. Half-assed solution: Still pending.

Beth Boquet


At 4:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A comment on the "extracurriculum": Anonymous recently attended a writing research conference at UC Santa Barbara and heard Andrea Lunsford and colleagues talk about their longitudinal study of the writing lives of Stanford undergraduates. The focus of this presentation was on students' "self-sponsored" writing, the many kinds of tasks that students did outside of the classroom, and Anonymous and the other audience members saw examples from four particular students whose writing was essential to their work as activitists, artists, and community members.

Now, the implied message could go at least two ways:

1) Look at the rich writing lives these students have outside of our classrooms, which leads us to conclude that school-sponsored writing is just a small blip on their radar screens, far less important than what happens in the extracurriculum.
2) Look at the rich writing lives these students have outside of our classrooms, and how can we structure class time to contribute to (and co-opt?) that writing?

As Anonymous and many readers may know, the Stanford Writing Center sponsors very popular spoken-word events and other sorts of "extracurricular" opportunities for students (and staff and faculty) to display their writing lives.

Anonymous is vaguely troubled by all of this--not the events themselves, but by the inside-outside binary that hasn't served writing centers particularly well for 100 years now (and is perhaps another version of the binaries Gardner and Ramsey talk about in their WCJ article). Is that where we want to be or is Anonymous reading the situation incorrectly?

At 4:59 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

An ode to me??? How fun! Move over, Anonymous --- I'm keeping first chair. :>)

You're so right, dear mater de blog: the extracurriculum deserves equal status with the regularcurriculum. I have so much more to say, but a student has arrived for consultation, so I'll have to blog later.

At 5:21 AM, Anonymous Susan Mueller said...


I am so sorry about your long-ago student who committed suicide. We all believe, whether we verbalize it or not, that self-expression has a healing power. That is one of the reasons we do what do, despite the frustrations and challenges. You can't have known what was on the horizon; we save far more students than we lose (or damn).

Long, long ago, when I was an undergraduate, my Intro to Poetry professor killed himself when he was supposed to be teaching my class. I realize (then and now) that we weren't the overt cause, but I always felt somehow that we'd (I'd?) failed him--one reason I became a teacher of writing and literature.

Ultimately, it's all parenthetical.


At 7:00 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

More on the student who wrote the threatening essay:

He missed an outrageous number of classes and generally failed to do his work all the way around, in and out of class. However, he was determined to finish the class, and when I expressed my frustration at his apparent unwillingness to attend to his studies, he explained that he was in outpatient drug rehab and suicide prevention therapy and basically having a very hard time holding on. The friend and mother in me hurt for him, and I told him so --- but I suggested that school may just be a little too much for him to handle right now on top of trying to get his life together. I'm not sure how he's doing now, but I'd like to know. Anonymous, do you suppose this student has "a rich writing life" outside of the classroom? I just can't see it. Then again, maybe I should have encouraged him to pursue it.

At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope that student has a "rich writing life," Tamara, but I hope even more that he's getting good advice about medication.

Anonymous doesn't discount notions of "writing as healing" (and some impressive cognitive-science research has been done to support the idea), but the rich, complicated lives (writing or otherwise) our students lead are often only barely revealed in writing center sessions.

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

Has anyone in our large audience :>) read Night Falls Fast, by Kay Redfield Jamison? See the NPR story, if you have a chance.

I think many more of us need to read the book in order to better understand and empathize with each other. I was led to the book during my own darkest depression, by a friend who had attempted suicide --- and ended up driving herself to the emergency room at the last minute and surviving (thank God).

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