Monday, December 30, 2013

Time to Read; Time to Write

Through this most hectic of holiday periods, I have found myself woefully behind in book posts, for which I apologize. I have, though, found time to read, even when everything else in my life has been frenzied and hectic.  One drawback of a teaching career is that I hit that grading/posting deadline twice a year, not just once.  (Think of April 15 for CPAs or December 25 for Santa and the elf crew).

The first year I taught was particularly stressful, and I had the foolish misfortune of having research papers due right around the end of the first semester.  That year, as many of my students may remember, we still didn't have a tree the Saturday before Christmas and might not have had one at all had not three of the boys from the senior class delivered on  they said they had cut themselves to my driveway. It was beautiful-- at least twelve feet tall, perfect for the out high ceiling in the living room. Recently, in a Facebook conversation with the goodhearted tree givers, most of them pled the fifth or asked if the statute of limitations was up.  Enough said.

This year, though, I've read a wonderful variety of books the last three or four weeks, so I can't wait to share some of them.  I will also be taking down my wall calendar for 2013 so I can transcribe a list of everything I read in the past year.

For now, though, I want to mention one I'm not quite through reading, Ann Patchett's recent collection of essays and other nonfiction pieces, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I've been a Patchett fan for years, ever since I read Bel Canto. That book captivated me for many reasons. It's one of those books that has stuck with me in ways some books don't.  I remember tiny incidences, specific characters, impressions from the book.  I've had the chance to hear her speak three times--once with Allan Gurganus, one of her professors and a gentleman I have grown to admire for his writing and for his generosity of spirit, one at the NCTE convention in Nashville several years ago (in which she reinforced her support of assigning the classics to high school students), and recently at UNC-Asheville.

Reading through this recent collection, I sometimes feel guilty for presuming to think I know an author simply because I've read her books, for even daring to think I could breach her wall of privacy.  She comes across as both private and approachable, a confusing mix.  Since I always visit Parnassus Books, the store she co-owns, when I'm in Nashville, and because she lives in a city I've loved since my own college years, I am always overwhelmed by the sense of the familiar when I read her essays.

I also feel a particular connection when she touches on topics of interest to me.  Case in point:  She has one essay explaining the controversy that arose when Clemson selected her memoir Truth and Beauty as their freshman read, after which an alum decided the book was vile, as must be its author.  She also publishes the speech she wrote and delivered at Clemson (accompanied by a bodyguard provided by the college.)  My overwhelming takeaway is the need for students--especially college students--to see their educations as something in which they engage, not as something done to them.

When I make reading assignments in my classes, I try to do so with conscientious purpose.  I would never choose something prurient for the sake of shock; however, I sometimes find a book or a story worth reading together, even when I find some ideas or language or situations objectionable.  Teaching English and literature, I've always believed, is about teaching people to think.  I don't know if it's possible to teach anyone HOW to think, but I certainly try to encourage the process of critical thinking. Already, I'm considering ways to interject some of these pieces in my upcoming composition  course, where I hope to engage my students in thinking, talking, and writing about their own learning, their educational goals, the development of their own system of values, perhaps shaped by their families, but adopted intentionally.  I don't think they'll find any of that in Spark Notes.

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