One might ask, I suppose, why a writing teacher reflects so much on education. I think it’s the teacher part. And the writing part. As a writing teacher, I don’t have content or a specialized knowledge to impart to students—like math or the history of England. I do, of course, have content in my writing courses, but it’s not fixed or something either about which I am expert. I keep changing the content or it keeps changing. Next quarter, I will teach a class linked to Sociology and basic sociology will be the content of the course.
And in the basic freestanding courses I always have content too. For example I have been teaching something called Writing for the Social Sciences. I am no expert in the social sciences, but I offer a topic that I hope social science students can write about. For about four, maybe five years, I used the topic of “Eating in America.” Then I grew weary of reading about people getting fat, so I changed the topic to the Consumer Society. Partly, though I changed, not just to get away from obesity, but because for our basic research writing course I had taught something on the American family. That topic, along with the fat topic, led me to believe that I had fallen asleep somewhere around 1985.
My readings in fat and the family made me aware that some pretty amazing changes had been taking place in the USA since about 1980. I had noticed them, I suppose, or been vaguely cognizant, but I hadn’t tried to study them directly or to make some sort of systematic sense out of them, so I switched to the consumer society. That seemed to offer me, at least, a frame by which to digest or make sense of all the disparate info I was getting about markets, niche markets, cows and beef, brands, our experiential distance from what we eat, credit card debt, the growing income gap, health care and the death of the medical profession.
That last topic—the death of the medical profession–arouse out of teaching a writing course for students seeking to enter the medical professions.
I picked these topics for my own reasons and I have always tried to find a “content” that students might know something about and that might at least slightly pique their interest. Who isn’t interested in food? Thus Eating in America. I thought students might be interested because I knew that they ate, and once, a number of years before, an In-n-Out Burger franchise had moved into our area, and while, driving by it on the freeway, I noticed, on the day of its opening, a huge line of cars extending from the parking out of sight on down the street.
What’s up, I wondered, and asked my students, the next day, about In-n-Out, and a discussion erupted (is the right word) about burgers and which was the best burger and so on. And vigorous debate centered on French Fries, some arguing that In-n-Out Fries were the worst, and others argued that they were really French fries and very fresh because you could see them making them on the spot. One kid defended In-n-Out mightily, and admitted, when I expressed my consternation at anyone waiting that long in a car to get a burger, that he had made a special trip to In-n-Out because he wanted to be there at the opening, as if the opening of an In-n-Out was like the opening of the baseball season. And when it came out that they had screwed up his order, you could tell he was really upset. Like going to the first day of baseball season and having the game rained out. He was really disappointed.