Do "assigned work" for free/thee?: authority, control, and assignments.

        One of the most persistent problems in education is the authority relationship between students and teachers.  One gets assignments and the other gives them, then the ones who "got" the assignment turn in a response which the ones who "gave" the assignment must read.   This system's mechanical repetition erodes the writers' authentic will to compose, deadening creative considerations of style and taste while it constricts the writers' vision of what topics are possible.  Similarly, the readers' reception of the writing can become increasingly habituated, in effect, as stereotyped in manner as the writers' approach to writing it. 

        What if we reversed the authority flow?  Students writing would be assigning reading tasks to teachers, and teachers reading those papers would be trying to meet the expectations of the writers.  What a concept!  It's not without costs, of course.  The "assigning writer" has to be firmly in control of the process and the resulting product, and mistakes can lead to "reader errors" that will degrade the level of communication between the writer and reader.  But the "grade" would be understood as an evaluation of the quality of that whole communication system, not just something the teacher assigns to the writer like a court sentence handed down by a judge.  

        The first step in this transformation of authority must be taken by the writer.  Those in positions of authority only rarely are in a hurry to hand it off, especially if they don't think that the recipients are ready and willing to accept it.  The following public folder exchange from English 222 (Fall 2000) brought out one of those autobiographical tales of how one student found the handle on the authority engine. 

        I should say, in fairness to Jared and Sarah, that they're both excellent students and did very well in the assigned work for the course--their public disaffection with the educational process surprised me at first, but then made me remember what had happened to make academic life different for me.  All my students owe them thanks for their honesty and bravery.

-----Original Message-----

From: Fischer, Jared

Posted At: Sunday, April 30, 2000 8:03 PM

Posted To: English 222

Conversation: something to think about

Subject: something to think about

 To what degree are we letter writers in this public folder is the question that struck me as I thoroughly enjoyed reading a few of Virginia Woolf’s correspondence letters found in a green book reclining on our library’s loveseat. No, I could not check this book out; my ID is under arrest at Thormann for carelessly leaving a pair of the building’s headphones at my computer after I departed, only hours later to have some desperate individual steal the black headphones for his or her personal use. So, I read only a few letters in the short time between classes that I was killing in the library. Still it was so inspiring... I thought, " Is my writing boring?" Virginia’s is so eloquent and her sentence structures so incredible, from the short punchy declaratives to some that are almost confusing at first read. I said, "Why be boring? I can’t wait until the summer so that I can read books and write some stuff with nothing hanging over me. I wouldn’t mind going south and living in the heat of Tennessee and on a farm. Would that put my mind at rest? Would that help? To eat raw fruits and vegetables and so on? College is worthwhile but it is also inhibiting in terms of creating art. But more so it is worthwhile. It is guidance, like going before the tribunal and being ripped apart so you never grow slovenly. Think if you became slovenly how awful that would be, to be a primate of a sort, that is if in fact primates were actually slovenly.

-----Original Message-----

From: Raz, Sarah

Posted At: Sunday, April 30, 2000 9:27 PM

Posted To: English 222

Conversation: something to think about


i am also looking forward to the summer where i can do stuff like READ and WRITE and DRAW without having it be ASSIGNED. i don't know what it is about having work count for credit, but it takes a lot of the fun out of it. its like i always loved mowing the lawn until my parents made it a chore.


Arnie's reply to Jared and Sarah:

        Jared's and Sarah's postings really struck a chord in me, and they take us way back to some things we were talking about very early in the semester. Can you see the truth in Jared's concern that unless we're "going before the tribunal" of scholarship there's a danger we'll become "slovenly"? So how do you reconcile that need for "examination" with the free invention you crave. I'll admit that submitting to the authority of the Powers That Be does seem contradictory to creativity.

        I went through a similar pattern of resistance to structured education, though I was very good at it (at least in English--don't ask about Calculus II or Physics I). After a time, I saw all my good grades as signs I'd been coopted by the Establishment, trained to obey senseless rules in pursuit of only the "authorized" knowledge. It got so bad that, when Carl Strauch gave me an "A" on my final paper for his American Literature seminar, I protested the final grade, insisting that it be lowered. Always the ironist, Strauch submitted a "Change of Grade" form and changed the "A" to an "A." So, in part because of the war, and partly because I thought education was a crock, I fled, and you know part of the rest of that story (Colorado, pizza cook, Massachusetts, unemployment, New Jersey, print shop etc.). I kept reading and writing, but my life and work had no structure and I couldn't figure out how to make it meaningful to people. I thought it was great, but the market was not convinced, so I thought the market was corrupt.

        Zen story: A rich man who already has paid the greatest teachers to train him goes to be instructed by a famous Zen master. When he arrives, the old man prepares to serve tea. The master begins pouring tea into the rich man's cup until it overflows the brim and spills down onto the floor. The rich man leaps up, crying "no more, it is too full!" The old man says, "the mind is like that cup--it can receive no new wisdom until it is ready to receive it."

        "Emptying my cup" took me a long time. On the way, I was a pain in the butt to a succession of patient teachers like Gary Lindberg, Les Fisher, Elizabeth Kirk, Andy Sabol, and Bob Scholes. One of them, Tom Carnecelli, nearly drove me crazy when he told me, as we talked in the hall, "So you're one of those people who believes he can know the truth!" He wasn't kidding--it's how I started to understand deconstruction as something that "happens" because of the instability of language, not really something we can "do" to a work of literature.

        It was Les Fisher who taught me how to do assigned work for free, as if I had invented the assignment myself. As the son of one of the only African American families in Portsmouth NH and the only tenured person of color in the UNH English Department in the 1970s, he'd had to learn inventiveness to survive, and he was not afraid to challenge hallowed conventions of academia to do it. One of his first published articles was sub-titled, "Maybe the Instructor Should Cut Class." In one of my weekly papers for his modern lit. course, I had written that Amiri Baraka's work was difficult for readers to respond to critically because they couldn't achieve "an appropriate critical distance" from the material. In the margin he asked, "what's that?"  As they say, "the scales fell from my eyes," and it has been one of those lessons that keeps on teaching.  (Thanks, Les.)  When you get your mind in the right place, any task is a matter of life or death, heaven or hell, being or nothingness. The task is you, and in completing it you complete yourself.

        So try to find your own task in your assignments, no matter how strange the assignment you were given might seem, and write nothing in bad faith with yourself or your subject. You are bigger inside than you think, and capable of being as strange as any of your assignments or your teachers. Let youself grow wiser than you were when you first thought you knew the truth. When summer comes, honor that pent-up desire to create. Maybe it's the greatest gift we can give you. The wolf hunts best when he's hungry.

        Sorry for the length of this rant, and thanks very much for taking your creative powers seriously enough to be jealous of who gets to direct them.