Mounting the Podium

Or, as I was trying to say before I got distracted by the Volksburger, the writing course does not have content or a disciplinary knowledge upon which one need be expert to mount the podium, as it were.  At one time, back in the early 80’s, far, far away and many moons ago, the composition shakespearedeadsequence in which I worked did have content.  The first course was a writing course—mostly students wrote —and the second course featured the informal essay, short stories, and a novel of one’s choice, and finally, believe it or not, the last course in the sequence featured poetry, a Shakespeare play, and one by a modern.

As I said, that was many moons ago.  Back then the writing program was under the purview—curricularly and adminstratively—of the English Department.  One has to say I think that these literary texts were a kind of fixed curriculum.  The sequence wasn’t arranged around mastering different sorts of writing skills, but around making sure students got a taste of poetry, the novel, and some short stories.  One administrator, I remember, expressed some dismay when the writing program became the writing program and did away with the literature part.  Now, he said, it will be possible for a student to graduate the university without having read a single play by Shakespeare.

True enough, I guess, though not sufficient reason to teach him in a writing course.  I wasn’t sure however that the reasons my more compositionally inclined colleagues gave for not teaching him were all that good.  They seemed to be saying—and this seemed the only coherent reason they could give for not teaching Shakespeare—that the content of a writing course was most properly writing and not Shakespeare.  I think teaching Shakespeare and poetry made my compositionalist colleagues feel insecure because they felt Shakespeare was a content, or disciplinary knowledge upon which one need be expert to mount the podium and pontificate.

I didn’t understand this at all; for while, yes, I had at one time been an English Major, but I had taken only one—and it was poorly taught—class on Shakespeare in my entire college career, undergraduate and graduate, and did not feel myself an expert at all.  This didn’t bother me one whit because I did not teach Shakespeare as content.  I wasn’t concerned about saying something about his work that was inaccurate because I didn’t try to say anything about him except that which might give students the confidence to read him and then to write something upon him.  I did not, for example, talk about the “nature of tragedy.”  Heaven forbid.  Given the way I approached the teaching of Shakespeare I thought his works were just as good as many and perhaps better than some works as a stimulus and catalyst for student writing.

 I was troubled also by the other side of this equation.  For the argument against teaching Shakespeare appeared to pit one content—in this case—Shakespeare against some other “content” specific to and definitive of the writing classroom.  But as I have argued, the writing classroom has no content per se or qua content.  None.  That some in the “discipline” of writing think otherwise is quite disturbing at least from a theoretical perspective and in the light of sound reasoning.  In the “real” world of course one does what one has to do.  But this idea that the content of the writing class is writing has had and continues to have pernicious effects.  I hold this idea responsible for the many teachers, usually beginning ones and Teaching Assistants, that feel one has not done one’s duty as a writing instructor unless one has managed to reduce students to complete confusion by lecturing on and on about coming up with a “thesis statement.”

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