#WYOA: week two

The third week is over, and I’m just now writing about the second week. This is an ominous sign.

Monday was lost to Labor Day—nice to have a long weekend, but it has always seemed counter-productive to take the second Monday of the semester off.

Wednesday we diagrammed sentences. I decided to add this exercise after reading this Opinionator piece; I’d intended to practice over the summer, maybe teach my ten-year-old how to diagram, but that didn’t happen. So when I walked in, I sort of knew what I was doing, but not really—and the students knew about as much as I did. In spite of our collective ignorance, class went pretty well: the students were fairly involved—some of them, anyway—which doesn’t always happen for me. I was trying to reinforce some ideas from Fish’s How to Write a Sentence (which the students did not like, btw)—specifically the idea that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships—but I’m not sure how much of that I got across. We’ll probably diagram some more sentences later, if/when I have clearer idea how to do it.

Friday … what did we do on Friday? *consults notes* Wait, apparently we diagrammed sentences on Friday, not Wednesday … so what did we do Wednesday? *consults other notes*

Oh, right. Wednesday I tried to get them talking about a number of things—the rhetorical triangle, their introductory emails, the xkcd assignmentHow to Write a Sentence … I did most of the talking, I think, which rarely makes for a good class. I did find out that they perceived the “introductory email” assignment as “casual,” which surprised me. I’d intended it to be a bit intimidating—I gave them very little direction, just “send me an email introducing yourself,” and I thought that would be anxiety-producing (but, you know, in a good way). Of course, I’d also told them the story of getting thrown out of college the first time I was an undergrad, so…

Finally, I assigned their first paper—a book or movie review—and had them hunt down three example reviews. They had varying levels of success with this, corresponding to how closely they were listening when I told them what I wanted. After some editing, we had a list of thirty or so, of which they had to read about a dozen, and which we talked about during the third week.

#WYOA: “xkcd: Questions” assignment

This happened on Monday:

why, why, why, why, why

As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to come up with a writing assignment based on it. So, over their long Labor Day weekend, my students are going to pick a question and answer it. Incorrectly:

Your answer should do two things simultaneously: it should be patently and outrageously false, and it should be as plausible and convincing as possible. Your audience—in this case, your classmates—should know that your answer is totally wrong, but still believe it when they’re done reading.

The full assignment is here; I’ll let you know how it goes.

#WYOA: week one

The first day of class went okay—nobody went straight to the Registrar’s office and transferred to another section, which has happened to me before.

I don’t like first days: they’re necessary, but always feel unproductive. I feel a need, especially with first-year students, to go over the syllabus—it seems to reduce the number of already-answered-on-the-syllabus-type questions I get—but it’s also kind of boring, for them and for me. It doesn’t help that I mentally rehearse the first day so much that I forget to actually say half the things I intend to say. Someday I’ll learn to make my first-day outlines more complete…

We could discuss the common reading, I guess, but the students participate in discussions as a part of orientation, and (in my limited experience) are already tired of whatever book by the time they get to my class. Also, I have no desire to discuss the books that get chosen as common readings: they aren’t particularly substantive, and dealing with their more problematic aspects would require more time and context than I’m going to devote to a text chosen by a committee without any real contribution from the faculty expected to teach it. </rant>

The one thing I enjoy doing on the first day is speed introductions. I number the students—1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3…—and have them form five groups, with one of each number in them (fifteen is a good number for this). They have 90 seconds to meet each other, and then one number rotates to the next group clockwise, one number rotates counterclockwise, and the final number stays put. It’s loud and chaotic, and the students seem to enjoy it (and this group of students grokked the concept really quickly, unlike some previous groups).

One consequence of the speed introductions is that I don’t really learn anything about the students on the first day—but I never really learn anything from the “go around the room and introduce yourself to everyone” model, either. This semester, I had the brilliant idea of having the students send me introductory emails. This was their first homework assignment, and it seems to have worked fairly well. There was a range of responses; several were quite long, and one was so terse that it told me nothing that I couldn’t have learned from the roster. So the students had a chance to make a crafted first impression, and the care they took in doing so told me more than they might have realized, and this exercise provided a point of reference for our discussion of the “rhetorical triangle” on Friday.

(On Wednesday, the students wrote an in-class essay—required by the department for reasons that change depending on whom you ask—which will serve as a “zero draft” for their first essay.)

Friday didn’t go as well as I’d hoped—a full third of the class was absent, presumably preparing for the evening’s football game against TCU. It’s distracting to have that many students gone—and on the third day!—but we went gamely on, anyway.

I introduced the students to the rhetorical triangle; not the most exciting lecture, but the terms and concepts are foundational to thinking about the process of writing, which is what I them to do. I brought up their emails as an example, and asked them to think about what they might have done differently if I’d assigned them before our first class meeting, and how they would approach sending an introduction to a professor who hadn’t asked for one—that will be the beginning of our discussion next week.

Finally, we looked at a few ads, and tried to think about them in terms of the triangle (this required standing on a desk to turn on the projector, as a crucial piece of technology—the remote—was missing). This went fairly well: it was a fairly short discussion, but most of the students seemed willing to talk, and to express opinions that were different than mine. We were talking about low-impact stuff—white iPhones and Siri—but it’s a start.

Not an amazing first week, but not a terrible one either. I remain cautiously optimistic.

“Write your own adventure”

I’ve been trying to write this post all summer; this is my third or fourth fresh attempt, and I’ve thrown away thousands of words. Like Tristram Shandy, I kept getting sidetracked by digressions from the first word, writing about this or that bit of unnecessary background, never getting to the point: the class I’m teaching this semester.

It’s called “Write your own adventure” [#WYOA]—I don’t really like the name, but I had very little time to come up with a title and description: nobody really knew I was teaching a section of first-year writing until after the Fall catalog went live in, like, February. I’d been thinking, in a hypothetical way, about how I might do things differently if/when I taught an introductory writing course again, so I wasn’t scrambling as much as I might have been. Still didn’t keep me from picking a goofy name, though.

#WYOA is based on choose-your-own-adventure stories in two ways. First, we’ll actually be reading some: I have a half-dozen or so “classic” CYOA books, including a “Super CYOA” and a “Twistaplot“; I’ll use these to (re)introduce the students to the genre, and we’ll probably do rudimentary plot-maps of them. We’ll probably also read The Most Boring Book Ever Written, which is a pretty clever take on the genre (as well as an uncomfortably accurate commentary on contemporary American middle-class life).

The centerpiece of this part of the class, though, is Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be, a choosable-path reinterpretation of Hamlet. (Read reviews at Slate, at NPR, at Comics Alliance.) I’ll write a separate post about this book, but right now I want to say that I’m really excited about teaching it; in fact, a big reason that #WYOA even exists is because I wanted an excuse to teach To Be Or Not To Be.

#WYOA is also structured like a CYOA story—the students and I are going to be making it up as we go along. I have the first week pretty carefully plotted out, and the next three or four loosely sketched, but October and November are basically empty at this point (their paper due dates are already set, however). I have a number of assignments planned (a few are even written!), but the order in which I assign them will depend on the way the class unfolds. And while I will constrain and guide their choices to some extent—I can’t let them spend every class meeting watching YouTube videos or something—it’s my hope that they’ll take an active role in what we read, watch, discuss, and write.

This way of doing things would probably terrify some people, but I think it’s going to work well for me: even when I “carefully plan” an entire syllabus, I still go into most class meetings with just a few bullet points and wing it. I think this approach will work well with this type of course, as well: my job is to help the students become better writers, and I think the best way to do that is to show them that writing can be exciting, liberating, empowering—and fun. Doing that requires, among other things, a kind of responsiveness and flexibility that a carefully planned syllabus hinders.

I’ll post updates periodically (ideally after most classes, but I’ll consider once-a-week a success), documenting what works and what doesn’t. Here’s hoping this adventure ends well.

Does Crusoe Shit in the Woods?

That’s the title of the paper I’m giving at SLSA ’13—and the paper is done, a full two months before the conference. That’s miraculous, for me. Usually I’m about 75% finished when I head to the airport, and still tweaking almost until the last minute. Not the best way to do it, I know.

As you might have guessed from the title, the paper is about where Robinson Crusoe shits. This is more important than you think it is: Crusoe is not just some castaway, he’s the “King and Lord” of his island, and he spends the entirety of his twenty-eight shipwrecked years turning his desert ( = uncultivated) island into a colony. He even leaves behind colonists! Two sets of them, who don’t get along, as recounted in the sequel!

Colonizing the island means imposing order on it: he fences in parcels of land, he grows grain, he husbands goats, he tends the wild grapevines, he builds houses (three of them, plus a converted cave). And he tells the reader about all this stuff, and everything else besides——except about where he shits. And why is that? Because he never shits, that’s why. And why doesn’t he shit? Because he’s the King, that’s why, and the King can’t shit. Shitting is for savages, not kings!

So that’s the teaser, and if it sounds intriguing, you can read the whole thing. Keep in mind that it was written to be read aloud: there are lots of dashes, and several premeditated digressions in square brackets (time and audience interest permitting). Feedback is most welcome, especially pointed questions (so that I’ll have answers for them prepared).

And the next time you shit into a flushing toilet, say a word of thanks.

What is “Art”?

About a month ago, this was retweeted into my feed:

I don’t know who Bök (a poet) or Watts (a novelist) are, and I have no idea what the context of the statement is—but it  seemed like a bizarre and ridiculous claim. Operating under the assumption that Watts meant this seriously, I responded:

It sounds snarky, I know, but I was being serious. I promise.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a response; by the next morning, I’d mostly forgotten the whole thing. Except that, like an annoying pop song, the tweet kept—keeps—popping into my mind at odd moments, demanding a bit of attention, and then receding again. So I’m going to write about it, and hope that gets it out of my head.

Let’s start with the word “cheaper” (and, really, that should be “more cheaply”): any calculation of cost has to include the time spent doing/making whatever the thing in question is. There’s an xkcd about this:

I phrased my question to Bök in terms of plumbing because we’d just started remodeling a bathroom, and had the plumbers coming out to update the shut-off valves and shower plumbing while the bathroom was in a state of undress demolition. I’m fairly sure I could have done everything the plumbers did, and the materials would have cost less than they charged us (which was a very reasonable amount, by the way). But it took the plumbers about ninety minutes to do the job, and it would have taken me all day. Maybe two days—I’m not very good at sweating copper pipe.

What the plumbers did, then, according to Watts’s definition, was Art, because I could not have done it more cheaply myself.

Conversely, the Artness of Tara Donovan’s cube of toothpicks depends entirely—under Watts’s definition—on the price of toothpicks at any given moment. I recognize that the Artness of the toothpick-cube is debatable, but that debate should be about the concept and the experience of the work, and not a question of commodity prices. (As an aside: I think the cube of toothpicks is definitely Art, and a big part of its Artness, at least for me, is the fact that it disintegrates, slowly and then quite suddenly—or so I’ve been told.)

Reproducing the cube of toothpicks is in some sense trivial—one just has to build a frame of a certain size and fill it with toothpicks. But what about, I don’t know, the Mona Lisa? I’m not sure how long it took Leonardo to paint it, but I could probably knock out a copy in an afternoon. It would look like shit, of course, but it would be cheap (especially if I used crayons). And does it matter that my hypothetical crayola-copy of the Mona Lisa is in every way inferior to Leonardo’s? I just have to do it more cheaply, not better or even as well. But a further consideration is that nobody paid me to make my Art, and (at least as far as I know) Leonardo was paid. An accurate cheapliness comparison would require me to figure out how much he was paid, what his material costs were, how long he worked on it, what his time was worth … too much stuff, too many variables. And I’d have to adjust the whole mess for inflation and determine some sort of exchange rate. This is just stupid, right? This paragraph has been a waste of time—but Watts’s criterion for determining whether or not something is Art compels me to write it.

Dropping the word “cheaper”—so that we have “Art is anything I cannot do myself”—clarifies how unhelpfully subjective this definition of art is: the entire range of human activities, and a fair number of bodily functions, are “Art” for someone. Ultimately, I think Watts’s statement is reducible to “Art is anything”—which is the same as saying “Nothing is Art.” Maybe that was Watts’s point? If so, well, bullshit.

I don’t want to argue that there is some set of objective criteria for determining whether or not something is Art—that would be silly, and a waste of time. But I do think that, to be at all useful, a subjective and heuristic set of criteria for determining Artness should probably exclude more than it includes, and should take much more than mere cost into account.

“I now began to consider, that I might yet get a great many Things out of the Ship, which would be useful to me…”

One of the recurrent themes of Robinson Crusoe—one of Crusoe’s oft-repeated complaints—is how many things he lacked, and how much work everything took: because he either totally lacked the necessary tools, or had only crude, self-made approximations, which themselves took much time and labor to make (four days to make a shovel and hod!). About making his (first) fence, Crusoe says that “it is scarce credible what inexpressible labour everything was done with”——and the word “labour” is often so modified: not only “inexpressible,” but also “hard,” “much,” “very great,” “prodigious,” “infinite.”

On the other hand, Crusoe boasts of the things that he accomplishes by his constant labor, despite all the things he lacks—and he goes so far as to boast that he could have brewed beer, despite lacking barrels, kettles, hops, and yeast:

…and yet all these Things [lacking], notwithstanding, I verily believe, had not these Things interven’d, I mean the Frights and Terrors I was in about the Savages, I had undertaken it, and perhaps brought it to pass too; for I seldom gave any Thing over without accomplishing it, when once I had it in my Head to begin it.

The thing is, for all his complaining, Crusoe has a shitload of stuff. The ship he was on when became a castaway was barely two weeks into a trans-Atlantic voyage (from Brazil to Guinea) when it ran aground and all aboard—except Crusoe—perished. The ship itself survived the storms with minimal (well, moderate) damage, and was lodged in the sand about a quarter-mile from the shore, at low tide—that is, within swimming distance. Crusoe spends a full two weeks salvaging material from the ship before it finally sinks in another storm.

And what does he salvage? Everything:

[on the first day:] Bread, Rice, three Dutch Cheeses, five Pieces of dry’d Goat’s Flesh, …and a little Remainder of European Corn …… several Cases of Bottles…, in which were some Cordial Waters, and in all about five or six Gallons of Rack …… the Carpenter’s Chest …… Ammunition and Arms … two very good Fowling-pieces … two Pistols … some Powder-horns, and a small Bag of Shot, and two old rusty Swords; … three barrels of Powder [one of which has taken water, and is left behind]…

[on the second day:] …two or three Bags full of Nails and Spikes, a great Skrew-Jack, a Dozen or two of Hatchets, and above all, that most useful Thing call’d a Grindstone; …two or three Iron Crows, and two Barrels of Musquet Balls, seven Musquets, and another fowling Piece, with some small Quantity of Powder more; a large Bag full of small Shot …… Besides these Things, I took all the Mens Cloaths that I could find, and a spare Fore-top-sail, a Hammock, and some Bedding…

…the third Time I went, I brought away as much of the Rigging as I could, as also all the small Ropes and Rope-twine I could get, … [and] the Barrel of wet Gun-powder: In a Word, I brought away all the Sails first and last, only that I was fain to cut them in Pieces…

…after I had made five or six Voyages such as these, and thought that I had nothing more to expect from the Ship that was worth my meddling with, I say, after all this, I found a great Hogshead of Bread and three large Runlets of Rum or Spirits, and a box of Sugar, and a Barrel of fine Flower…

[these things are enumerated later, but are salvaged on one of those “five or six voyages”:] Pens, Ink, Paper, …three or four Compasses, some Mathematical Instruments, Dials, Perspectives, Charts, and Books of Navigation … also I found three very good Bibles … some Portuguese Books also, and among them two or three Popish Prayer-Books, and several other Books …… a Dog and two Cats…

…I got two Cables and a Hawser on Shore, with all the Iron Work I could get… [this raft capsizes, and it is only with “infinite Labour” that Crusoe fishes the cables and “some of the Iron” out of his little cove]

[on the final trip:] …two or three large Razors, and one Pair of large Sizzers, with some ten or a Dozen of good Knives and Forks …… about Thirty six Pounds value in Money, some European Coin, some Brasil, some Pieces of Eight, some Gold, some Silver.

Then the ship sinks—but, six months later, it’s cast up by an earthquake, and Crusoe spends a month dismantling the fucking thing: “Timber, and Plank, and Iron-Work enough, to have builded a good Boat, if I had known how; and also, I got at several Times and in several Pieces, near 100 Weight of the Sheet-Lead.”

I don’t have a point, at all—it’s just that I finally (finally) got around to typing up that inventory in my notes on the novel, and thought I should share. Being stranded on a fertile, goat-filled, tropical island might not be so bad, if you had all that stuff, right?