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Reading The Bluest Eye

October 22, 2014

For the next few weeks of the semester, we’ll be spending some time with The Bluest Eye, a novel by the contemporary author Toni Morrison. If you’re familiar with Morrison’s writing at all, you might be more apt to recognize titles like Beloved, Song of Solomon, or Paradise. The Bluest Eye, however, is Morrison’s first novel, originally published in 1970. It recounts, as the first pages make clear, a devastating event in the life of a young African-American girl and the reaction of those around her. The subject matter is challenging, but Morrison’s approach in the novel is well worth our time.

I’d like us to begin thinking about the novel by using some of the terms of academic discourse that we’ve picked up in our tbereading of Joseph Harris’s Rewriting. This may seem strange at first. A work of literature isn’t exactly an argument – at least not explicitly – and chances are we won’t see Morrison making the distinct conversational “moves” that many academic articles do. But I would like for us to think about how Morrison is working purposefully to respond to particular questions and problems that were relevant at the time she wrote the novel. To put this another way, we need to consider the rhetorical situation at stake in Morrison’s composing process.

Here are a few questions to begin with:

* What is the problem at the heart of this novel, and how is Morrison articulating that problem? Or, in Harris’s terms, what is Morrison’s project here?

* How does Morrison make use of other texts in her novel? What specific moments of intertextuality exist in the first sections, and what purpose do they serve?

* How does Morrison choose to present this narrative? What choices has she made in organizing the story, and what difference does that make in the way we react to it?

For more information about Toni Morrison, you can start at the following websites:

The Wikipedia entry for Toni Morrison

The Toni Morrison Society website

Toni Morrison on the Nobel Foundation website

Doing Feedback: Second Writing Project

October 13, 2014

For our second writing project, I’ve asked that you identify a particular problem, question, or controversy that you can respond to by joining in to a conversation with other sources. In Joseph Harris’s terms, this will most likely involve coming to terms with the sources you’ve chosen and then forwarding or countering some of the claims those sources make. The conversation you choose to enter may be one we’ve already identified in our readings, or it may be one you’ve noticed in sources outside of our class texts. The goal, however, is to try to say how three or more authors have wrestled with a similar idea and then to add something of your own to offer a new perspective. What new questions about memory and identity would you ask O’Brien and Greenfeld? How does reading Nicolas Carr and Clive Thompson together raise new problems for us regarding our use of technology?

On Thursday of this week, we’ll be working again in groups to brainstorm and respond to each other’s initial drafts. This time, though, we won’t have the benefit of reading the drafts ahead of time. For that reason, you should come in to class ready to focus and spend some time with the members of your group. I’ve set up smaller groups this time, so that should make the work more manageable. To help in this process, I suggest that you consider the following questions for each draft:

1) How effectively have the writers in your group used their sources? Is it clear how the authors being cited might interact concerning the topic in question? For each essay in your group, you might try to target one or two examples where the writer has used sources well or where you have questions.

2) Have the writers in your group started to make a point about the sources they’ve chosen? In other words, can you find a thesis or a claim that does more than simply echo the words of the authors being cited?

3) How else could the writers in your group allow their thesis statements to evolve? Are there complications or unanswered questions that still need to be addressed? Are there other ways that their thesis statements need to be developed?

For class on Thursday, please bring your laptops or iPads so you’ll have a way to access your partners’ drafts. If you don’t have access to a laptop or iPad, please check with me by the end of the day on this Wednesday. You’ll be responsible for offering specific feedback to your group members, so come prepared!

~~~~~

Group 1: Sydney Fazio, Michael Hudson, Paige Rebstock, Cole Grider

Group 2: Keri Edmonds, Monica Linnell, Luke Weaver

Group 3: Lindsey Jackson, De Pang, Tyler Powers

Group 4: Colin Feheley, Jillian Mayhew, Sami Bialozynski

Group 5: Manny Matthews, Chris Saul, Bobby Shiflet

Memory and “True” Stories

September 22, 2014

In class on Thursday, we’ll watch a brief excerpt from an interview with Tim O’Brien to get a sense of how he reflects on his own work as a writer. Feel free to preview this excerpt before class, or search for some other interviews with O’Brien on YouTube:

In this particular clip, he observes that when we read something someone else has written, we are “partly a witness and partly a participant.” As we look at the final sections of The Things We Carried, let’s consider what this might mean. How are we, as readers, both a witness and a participant with the writer, and how is the writer both a witness and a participant to his or her own thought?

To complement the reading for this Thursday, please read the following brief article from The Washington Post by memoirist Karl Taro Greenfeld. There, he takes up the blurry distinction between “truth” and “fiction,” and he considers some of the challenges of representing our own memories and identities in writing:

“The Writing Life: Karl Taro Greenfeld”

How might his perspective contribute to our understanding of O’Brien’s?

Doing Feedback: First Writing Project

September 11, 2014

Becoming better responders to writing is one of the course objectives I’ve set for us this semester. With that in mind, we’ll spend next Tuesday’s class interacting in small groups over the drafts you’ve started for the first writing project. The most obvious purpose for the activity is to provide you with some initial feedback on your writing, but I think there are even greater benefits to the work we’ll be doing. The claim I’d make is that by offering thoughtful feedback to someone else, you are in fact improving your own skill as a writer. By working with another person’s text, you’ll discover new ways of looking at your own. So what I ask is that you approach this feedback process earnestly with an eye toward improving yourself as a reader and writer.

Below I’ve sketched out what I have planned for us on next Tuesday, so please read carefully and notice that you’ll need to prepare for the class both as a writer and as a reader. At the bottom of this post, you’ll see that I’ve listed the groups you’ll be working in.

Preparing for next Tuesday, September 16:

YOUR JOB AS A WRITER

* Post an initial draft of your first essay to your own blog by no later than 5:00pm on Sunday, September 14.

* At the top of your draft, please include a paragraph addressed to your peer review group. In the paragraph, you should provide at least three pieces of information: 1) What do you feel best about with your current draft? 2) What do you feel you have left to do at this point? 3) What questions do you have, and what kind of feedback would you like from your group?

YOUR JOB AS A READER

* Check the list below to see which group you’ll be in on Tuesday. At some point between Sunday evening and class time on Tuesday, visit the blog of each member of your group and read the drafts that they’ve posted.

* Pay attention to the paragraph that each group member has included about his or her draft. As you read each draft, be thinking about the advice you might offer the writer on Tuesday.

* Using the “Leave a Comment” function on each member’s blog post, leave an initial brief response to the draft. This doesn’t need to be lengthy, but you might simply indicate what seems most interesting to you about the draft so far and what questions you’d like to discuss with the writer on Tuesday.

PLEASE BRING WITH YOU TO CLASS ON TUESDAY a laptop or tablet that you can use to access your partners’ drafts. If you don’t have access to a laptop or tablet, please let me know in advance, and we’ll work out a solution.

(Beside your name, I’ve added the day and time of your individual conference with me for next week. Remember that our conference will be held in my office in the Writing Center, Goldstein 106.)

Writing Groups:

Group 1

Sami Bialozynski (W 2:00)

Keri Edmonds (W 2:30)

Sydney Fazio (W 1:30)

Colin Feheley (T 1:30)

Group 2

Cole Grider (F 11:00)

Michael Hudson (M 1:30)

Lindsey Jackson (W 3:00)

Monica Linnell (Th 2:00)

Group 3

Manny Matthews (F 10:30)

Jillian Mayhew (W 11:00)

De Pang (W 11:30)

Tyler Powers (Th 3:00)

Group 4

Paige Rebstock (Th 1:30)

Chris Saul (M 2:00)

Bobby Shiflet (T 2:30)

Luke Weaver (T 2:00)

Getting Critical

September 3, 2014

The readings we’re discussing this week–those from Harris, Elbow, and Graff in particular–have all been pushing at the boundaries of what academics typically refer to as critical thinking. As some of you suggested in class, the word “critical” and all its variants (critic, criticism, criticize, critique) don’t always sound very pleasant. In common use, the word implies urgency (“critical condition”) or excessive negativity (“don’t be so critical!”). When we criticize someone, we’re usually pointing out a weakness or character flaw.

However, the process of critical thinking doesn’t have to be an act of ill-tempered fault finding. In fact, as Peter Elbow suggests, “critical” thinking usually benefits from a dose of creativity, play, and simple belief. Rather than limiting ourselves to what he calls second-order thinking — a kind of thinking that is “committed to accuracy and [that] strives for logic and control” (55) — Elbow believes that we should also tap into our intuition and gut instincts. He suggests beginning with an unrestricted, playful attitude toward the topic you’re writing about and then, once you’ve generated some material to work with, you can turn toward a more rigorous, critical mindset. In a similar way, Graff reminds us that critical thinking isn’t something that is restricted to great works of art or science. As he discovered, our own personal interests, no matter how unacademic they may seem, can often benefit from careful thinking and investigation.

More than anything else, critical thinking hinges on the way we ask questions. Although it may seem otherwise at times, academic questions are not typically aimed at finding a simple right or wrong answer or a correct interpretation. Instead, by asking questions, we’re trying to gain a better, fuller, more complicated understanding of the subjects we study. So rather than just sticking with the “facts” about an event, an academic would be more likely to ask, “why does the event occur the way it does,” “what is influencing the event,” and “what possible perspectives are we overlooking?” In this way, critical thinking requires that we suspend judgement about what we’re studying until we’ve investigated it from multiple angles.

As we begin discussing The Things They Carried, we’ll try to take on a critical mindset, and I hope we’ll be able to make some connections to what we’ve read so far. O’Brien’s account of life as a soldier in the Vietnam War doesn’t necessarily address writing or the academic life explicitly, but it is about the complex ways we think about and work through our own memories and experiences. As you begin reading, keep the following questions in mind:

  • Why does O’Brien choose to describe the confusing, disturbing, and often contradictory experiences of being a soldier in Vietnam as he does? As a writer, what strategies does he use to convey these experiences?
  • How is O’Brien using his writing to work through particular problems and concepts that are important to him?
  • Why is O’Brien so concerned with the nature of truth in the stories he tells? Does he want us to understand the book as a memoir (a “true” story) or as a novel (a fictional story)? What difference does it make?

Be looking for (and marking) specific moments in the text that stand out to you or that help us answer the questions above.

For background information, you might also want to to read a bit online about the Vietnam War (the Wikipedia entry on the war is a fine starting place) and about O’Brien himself.

College writing and the “generative paradox” of academic work

August 27, 2014

For the first week or two of our class, I’d like us to reflect a bit on what it means to be a student and what you can do to make the most of your college experience. The introductory chapter from Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, gives us some insight into the way that college professors most often think of the writing process. In particular, in the first pages he explains why he chose the term “rewriting” for the title of his book, and he suggests that there is a “generative paradox” at the heart of most academic work:

rewriting[C]ertainly, I hope it’s clear that the kind of rewriting I value has nothing to do with simply copying or reciting the work of others. Quite the contrary. My goal is to show you some ways of using their texts for your purposes. The reason I call this rewriting is to point to a generative paradox of academic work: Like all writers, intellectuals need to say something new and say it well. But unlike many other writers, what intellectuals have to say is bound up inextricably with the books we are reading, the movies we are watching, the music we are listening to, and the ideas of the people we are talking to. Our creativity thus has its roots in the work of others – in response, reuse, and rewriting. (2)

Although some of the terminology he uses here might seem difficult or imposing, I think this passage makes an essential observation about what it means to write in an academic context. For this Thursday’s class, let’s try to get at the heart of the paradox Harris is referring to.

Welcome to the English 101-22 Class Blog

August 25, 2014

Welcome to English 101-21, Doing Writing: Literature and Composition. This blog will be the online home for much of the work we do this semester, so please plan to check here frequently for news about the class, updates on assignments, and other important details. I’ll also be using this as a place to reflect on our group discussions, so I hope my own blog posts will give you some insight into what I’d like us to accomplish over the course of the semester.

To get this process started, I’ll ask you to do a few things right away:

First, please take a moment to look around the blog and explore what’s already here. The blog is pretty sparse for the moment, but it should grow quickly as our class gets underway. At this point, you’ll find that there are links to course materials listed across the top of the page. You’ll also see an explanation of the blog title on the About This Blog page.

Second, I’d like you to set up a blog for your own writing this semester and make your first post. To do this, simply go to wordpress.com and click on the “Get Started” link provided there. As you’ll see, it’s an easy process. You’ll be prompted to create a user name, a password, and a domain name and title for your blog. Once you have your own blog set up, please comment to this post and paste in the web address for your blog. I’ll then add everyone to the “Blogroll” list in the column to the right.

Finally, make your own first blog post. For this initial entry, you should introduce yourself briefly, and then think about one or two goals that you have for yourself in this class. Is there something you’d especially like to work on or get better at in your own writing? Rather than focusing on general goals (like making good grades), try to identify something specific you’d like to be able to do more effectively.

We’ll troubleshoot for any problems you’re having with your blog in class on Thursday. If you have a laptop, feel free to bring it with you for this session.

Thanks, and happy blogging!

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