Going Along

It’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally realized people don’t always see things the way I do.   😀 When I was growing up, that was already true at home. “Your feelings don’t matter,” my mom said more than once, right out there, a clear message. At school I got a different message, which was that my ideas mattered. I entered the world with the understanding, “Feelings? Useless. Ideas? Good.”

That isn’t true. Feelings are not useless and the world has been — generally — no more interested in my ideas than my mom was in my feelings. It’s kind of a surprise when, somewhere in adulthood, later in adulthood, usually, I think, but I could be wrong, we realize that we’re not all that important in the grand scheme. We’re actually pretty invisible.

To advance our ideas we have to express them, support them, often fight for them and, if we fight, it is often against something a lot more powerful than we will ever be. It’s often against the invisible force known as the zeitgeist. If we’re not (as my brother would say) “on the public pulse” our chances are not great. If Hillary Clinton (whom I did not like but believed would be a better president than His Orangeness) had listened to me, she might have won. What did I tell her? Oh, stuff like, “It’s not about being the first woman president, sweet cheeks. It might be to YOU; it isn’t to US. In the immortal words of Jello Biafra, ‘We have a bigger problem now’.” But she didn’t hear me and probably never heard of the Dead Kennedys or of Jello Biafra and, for all I know, thinks punk rock is a bunch of skin heads…

It isn’t just Hillary. Through my whole life, I have been relentlessly off the mark. Here’s an example. During the 20+ years I was teaching writing at community colleges, many theories about the teaching and learning of writing were gaining traction. In the last decade, one was a particularly formulaic five paragraph essay taught in basic writing classes. It was not the five paragraph essay as I’d learned it in high school, but something far more rote. Begin the essay with a quotation to get the reader’s attention; cover some basic information in 3 sentences following the attention grabber (which you purloin from BrainyQuotes); write your thesis statement.

Students who learned this, universally believed that, to find a thesis statement, all you had to do was look at the last sentence in the first pagagraph. Wrong.

Since I taught writing at a slightly higher level than this five paragraph essay (next class and at the university), I got to read a lot of these. They were horrible, especially when the writer was writing about something he or she had read and could actually glean a relevant quote from their reading. OK, well, it was a start, but I didn’t think it was the best start because there’s more to writing than that formula. I also knew that — at the university level — this patent structure was scorned.

Time marched on and a job opened up at a community college. I got an interview. Part of the interview was my boss pretending to be a student coming to me for help revising the paper. I did my best. Told her to find a relevant quotation from her reading rather than Googling “quotes about XYZ”. I suggested some other things that were absolutely counter to the formula.

The next part of the interview was a teaching demo. I had a PowerPoint (because most of my colleagues were still struggling with it and it was a requirement of the job to have that kind of techxpertise). The topic of the lecture was supposed to be “the four sentence types.” I did my lecture and that was the end of the interview.

I had no idea that I had stepped firmly on the feet — not just the toes —  of many of the people on the committee.

Turned out it was my BOSS who had come up with the formula for THAT particular formulaic five paragraph essay, something that had been discussed in numerous conferences over a period of a few years. She was the one who came up with the idea that students could Google salient quotations to hook the reader. She’d contributed to a textbook and so on and so forth. The four sentence types? Well, in that world it was far more important that students memorize the four sentence types and how to construct them than it is that they learn to use language to say something.

Form over substance. That’s how I saw it. I didn’t get the job. Obviously. BUT they continued to give me as many classes as they could every semester because what I did in the classroom worked.

Was I right? Were THEY right? I’d say both, but IF you’re not going with the tide, you are against the tide or carried along in spite of yourself. I was carried along and grateful to be because I needed to earn a living, but when the water level dropped, I was left on the bank.

Thank God.



17 thoughts on “Going Along

  1. Ugh, when I was a grad assistant then an adjunct professor teaching Freshman Comp, I got so tired of teaching that standard 5-paragraph essay to college freshmen & sophomores who could barely string 3 coherent sentences together much less construct a paragraph. And that was almost 20 years ago!

    So now that you’re off the shore and piloting your own boat, how do you feel?

    • I found that when those freshmen and sophomores had something to say, they had a lot less trouble stringing sentences together and far more interest in trying…but 20 years ago was about when things in education started the sad shift toward standardizing and sterilizing so… I can imagine. I loved teaching writing which is already a little odd :p

      Now that I’m on the shore and have had the chance to look at things from a distance, I don’t know why I didn’t jump ship sooner. I loved teaching, but…

  2. I have often commented that I really have no influence on anyone, anywhere. Garry, optimist that he is, feels \ ANY influence we have is something. He thinks we matter — you and me and our other friends whose ideas we put “out there.” Even if we affect just a couple of people here and there, that’s something — a lot better than most people manage.

    Sometimes, I agree with him. A lot of the time, I doubt it. If I stopped writing today, I don’t think anyone would remember I existed in less than a week … maybe even hours.

    Maybe he IS right. Maybe we make more of a dent than we think. Not with the Great Thinkers on earth, but with others. Maybe somewhere, someone will quote something we said and no one will remember who said it first, but it will be out there.

    Mostly though, I agree with you.

    • I think Garry is right, but (here’s the irony) I don’t care if he is or not at this point. That torrent is on the move and godnose what’s behind it. It’s like a Youtube play list. You pick a couple of songs that you REALLY like by a couple of bands and pretty soon they’ve lined you up with the big, noxious hits of the same era or the same arbitrarily determined genre. They don’t know why you liked those two songs, but they know the numbers. Suddenly, your phone or iPod is giving you a lot of nasty music you would NEVER choose. THEN Youtube makes these playlists public and the “world” sees “you” as a playlist of songs you don’t even like. That’s the way it really is, I think.

      • I’ve never subscribed to YouTube, though I use it when I need it. I am really careful about subscribing and lately, it has turned out to be one of the smarter moves I never made. I hope I’ve at least made a few people think about stuff that they might not have thought about. Does anyone get to do much more than that? If I can jog an idea into someone’s head, that’s something. Or I could sit here and stare out the window and wallow in depression.

        • I posted lectures for my students on Youtube. That has turned out to be one of the sweetest residues of my teaching career. Sometimes I get a message from a student saying, “Thank you, Professor. This helped me.”

          • Anything we do that helps someone is a plus. I used to be in touch with a few students and every time one of them was a bit more successful, it made life better for me, too.

  3. Yep, going against the grain is never easy, often harsh. Standing for something, anything, makes you feel better inside, definitely. Will it ever make a difference? Maybe, sometimes, possibly, or then again, maybe not. What I so enjoyed about this, Martha, was that everything you said rang so true, not just for me, but probably anyone that reads it. I got the same message, feeling didn’t matter, knowledge did, but I too learned that wasn’t always true. Still, time marches on and we grow and learn, sometimes humbled by the fact that what we felt was valuable isn’t valued but sneered at and taunted. It will all come out in the wash, won’t it? lol

    • No idea. I just know that I got lucky in 2000 and got a university teaching job that set me up with amazing health benefits the whole time I worked there and even more wonderful now. Someone was looking out for me because I began that fall without enough classes to live and suddenly I had university classes and that started me off on the teaching trajectory that provided for me in my old age. Whatever my struggles were, I am now relatively safe here on the bank of the stream. 🙂

  4. What a horrid style of writing!

    Your ideas don’t matter to the world. Your feelings don’t matter to the world. Why do I find this refreshing? It means I don’t have to give a f*** about the world. I just need to hide in some side eddy like a fat lazy fish and watch the world do what it will. And beware fishing lures.

    Power and prestige and great wealth mean nothing. Does anyone really think “the world” cares about Trump’s or Putin’s feelings? They can give commands but their ideas will disappear. Just ask Ozymandias. Or Kansas. Or Ecclesiastes. We’re just dust in the wind.

    Alternatively, I can redefine what the world consists of. My personal world, the important world, consists of my nuclear family and couple of friends. My world never included my employer. Large employers don’t give a rip if you live or die or go insane – as long as your replacement is trained. (A small shop can be an exception to this.) It was 9 hours a day I subtracted from my real life just to keep other aspects of the external world from ruining my remaining hours in my personal world. In my personal world, my feeling and ideas are important.

    One of the things I love about nature is that I don’t matter. It doesn’t give a damn whether I live or die. But at the same time, it demands nothing of me. The world may be hostile but the natural world is neutral. There is nobody insisting they be brown nosed, and no false friends. The motives of lions and lice are clear. No office politics or sleeping your way up the ladder will help.

    If I have a good idea I directly benefit. If I’m just not feeling it that day, nobody is on my case about too many sick days. If I want to do something stupid, I get hurt or maybe die. However, I have the authority to do whatever I want to do, be it good or ill. Consequently, I force myself to be thoughtful in my actions rather than have someone else tell me to make “good choices” based on *their* values.

    Nature also surrounds you with beauty. There is an inherent reward just for existing. The human world is quite inconsistent in this. Your reward is always still pending your next review. (I miss the days when working hard would have been its own reward.) Nature doesn’t judge you on your age, race, sexual alignment, personal appearance, gender, fashion sense, political opinion or religious faith. The human world does.

    Freedom to accept or reject a course of action. Responsibility coupled with *authority* to do the job at hand. Absence of subjective and personal judgment. What a concept! Yet so alien to the human world.

    • Yeah, it’s a sucky style of writing and it’s dishonest and it dehumanizes the process and it makes it harder to learn to write, but hey.

      As for nature…all my life I’ve known that nature is honest, and I knew that nature (in its way) loves me because I’m part and parcel of it all. It’s never been “out there” for me. It’s always been us. Me/it/we. Every love song ever written is from me to the mountains that surround me and sometimes they sing back. ❤

      From the time I was 8 years old when the bizarre antics of the family or friends or school or love or whatever reached its (predictable) level of incomprehensibility, I knew where to go, what to do. And I went. And I still go. 🙂

  5. Hear you. Sometimes the internet is good because it allows for a wider pool of people to interact with, and sometimes you do come across people that get it. But then of course, the small number of us is often vastly out-numbered on the internet by thems that don’t get it.

    I laugh when the inevitable I-told-you-so moment arrives, but the people you told can never remember you told them in the first place. 🙂

    As for the writing process, it’s the square pegs that are the most memorable. I wrote a whole uni essay before ‘my thesis’ came to me. Topped a class of 150. But I’ve also written some pretty awful essays too.

    • Writing is thinking. I think it happens a LOT that the thesis isn’t clear to the writer until they reach the “end” of their paper. Then they can do whatever they want — leave it at the end (sometimes it belongs there) or move it up. Sometimes we change our focus totally when we reach the “end” of our essay.

      I hated the formula for the 5 paragraph essay as it was being taught because it took away completely the idea that writing is thinking. Kids really felt pressured to have their shit together at the end of the 5th paragraph but a lot of them had just begun to get an idea of what they had to say. It took all the fun out of it, too. It was just awful. 😦 It seemed never to occur to my colleagues that writing depends on things like what you have to say and who you have to say it to. It was just an exercise for them, but writing was never that to me. I’m so glad I’m not there now. I’m sure they miss me, though… (ha ha)

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