Friday, September 16, 2011

The other side of the desk

The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. He inspires self-distrust. He guides their eyes from himself to the spirit that quickens him. He will have no disciple. - Amos Bronson Alcott


As leaves fall outside the window and a cold breeze comes in through the open doors, as I realize I'm 31 and a college graduate and all grown up and married, as I start to see gray hairs and just begin to notice the hint of wrinkles at the corners of my eyes, I still have trouble believing I'm finally a teacher. My lesson plans are right here in front of me. Yesterday was spent grading papers and quizzes. I've gotta teach on Monday. So it must be true. I must have finally gotten where I was going, at least in one sense.

I've wanted to teach since early on. My first grade teacher had one of those red smiley face stamps, which I assumed required a teaching license to purchase, for all the power that little grin had. If you didn't make any mistakes, she'd stamp the top corner of your quiz or test or homework. My habit back then was to place smiley faced papers at the edge of my desk where everyone passing by could see. I'd like to think I was just looking for recognition or congratulations, but it's more likely that I wanted one and all to be jealous of me and my success, to know who was master of the multiplication tables and queen of the vocabulary list, to bow to me and my map of the state capitals with its blood red, slightly smeared on one side (I hated when that happened), smile of approval.

It was then that I decided I'd someday sit in the seat of judgment. I'd have my very own red stamp. The fate of so many would be in my hands. And that day has finally come! But it turns out, I teach adults, use a regular old black pen, and feel pretty bad when a student doesn't earn the college equivalent of a smiley stamp. I am, to the disappointment of my old self, quite a merciful leader.

My first class was such a strange thing. I wasn't exactly nervous (I wanted to succeed too much to let nerves win out over adrenaline), but I was certainly new. Things went okay. Not awful, not amazing. We all survived, and most of them have stuck with me. There were moments when they got what I was saying and moments when their blank expressions told me I'd lost them. But overall, we made progress.

The worst part is knowing it'll take time to learn what works and what doesn't. I'd prefer not to make mistakes. I'd like to know the perfect way to reach every student and how to explain grammar effectively and how to best deal with different learning styles and levels, and I'd like to know it all right now. But I just don't. It's got to be earned, apparently. Like battle scars. You can only learn so much from the old pros. The real lessons come when you're out there on your own.

But there's a best part too, and that is that teaching is sure to be the hardest class I'll ever take. I kind of mourned my college days ending. I loved taking classes and having assignments and academic challenges. But this...this is something totally different. You have to know what you're talking about. If you don't, they'll know you don't know, and you'll lose them.

With all I don't know, there are a couple of things I've picked up on quickly. It seems, at least from this very green teacher who's looking for something constant to hang on to, that there are two critical things I must do, and one thing they must do. I must understand and effectively (passionately on a good day) communicate the material, and I must sincerely want the students to succeed. They must try as hard as necessary to meet the goals satisfactorily. (Yes, satisfactorily. Not all students are in love with words. I can't blame them--I'm not in love with numbers.)

It's a real shame I didn't teach first grade. Actually, no. They'd have hated me. Most first graders can't handle large doses of sarcasm and cynicism. The shame is that I'll never get to use the red smiley. My students already look at me funny when, instead of reading Jack London's perfectly good example of a descriptive essay in the textbook, we read Jacqueline Woodson's picture book Show Way and discuss ancestry for half an hour. They put up with my children's literature, but the smiley would never go over. (Secret goal: convince them children's lit is as good as (most of the time better than) adult lit. What good is it to wield the (regular old black) pen of power if you don't abuse it once in a while?) And anyway, what is an essay without a topic the student is passionate about? Why even bother? It's just homework then. Something to get through and get over with. If you make me write an essay about how to make a sandwich, I'm gonna fail. But an essay about the night I saw Santa kneeling by the Christmas tree? Now that's something with feeling behind it. (Really, I did.)

Ah, well. Just rambling now. Just trying to make connections. Just hoping I'm not the only teacher out there thinking, what the hell am I doing behind the desk? Don't they know I'm six years old? Don't they know I can't--

But I can. That's the funniest part of the whole thing. I really actually seriously probably almost-certainly surely can. And I must. They're counting on me now. And when they're not, I'll at least be counting on myself.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Be you

I'm not sure how often I'll do one-question interviews, but I'm pleased to bring you the second in the series. Many thanks to Marly for her beautiful answer on poetry last time. She's just survived Irene, though her cars and a lovely old tree behind her house didn't come out so well. Stop by her blog for an account of what happened. So glad you're okay, Marly friend. Hoping you find something poetic in the chaos.

Marly's introduction (before her One Question) was about how the mystery of poetry led me to ask for her insight. I could open this post the same way because the process of writing a scholarly paper worth reading has been, for me, just as perplexing.

Imagine how hard it was to think of only one question to ask someone who's an expert in everything from children's literature to communication to travel to cheese. In the end, I reverted to the second question I ever asked him. I had a paper due a few weeks from when I met Peter Hunt. He had just lectured for us Hollins students in Oxford and went along to the Henley Regatta where most of our group sadly lacked the proper headgear. I followed our meeting with an email asking about the process he went through to research and write an article. He gave practical and honest advice, half of which I didn't half understand but all of which I've referred back to many times since.

I've asked Peter the same question for you, and he's answered brilliantly. Thanks, Peter, for your reply to: What are the dos and don'ts of writing scholarly articles?


I suppose Robin asked me to write about this because I’ve written or edited more than twenty books, well over 100 scholarly papers in dozens of journals, lectured and examined at well over 100 universities, and spent too many years reading student papers and refereeing articles for journals.  As a result, she probably thinks, in her kind way, that I should know what I’m talking about (rather than qualifying for a lobotomy and extensive therapy).

So if I assume (as the audience ALWAYS comes first) that you, dear reader, haven’t suffered as much as I have, and are starting out writing scholarly articles - undergrad, grad, post grad, or having to write something to get or keep your job, then we have a problem - that what I can get away with, and what you can get away with, might be rather different. 

This blog, then is the truth about writing scholarly articles: it’s partly - mostly - about writing articles that are interesting and readable at worst, and inspiring and life-changing at best - which is what all articles should aspire to be (otherwise why write them?). It’s also about the Real World, where there are teachers and editors who are not adventurous, who are so brain-beaten by the mediocre and the meretricious that they not only accept dull, uninspired and downright bad articles, but have come to expect, to assume, that that is how articles should be.  And then there are the unsung heroes of the academic world, the people who write and the people who grade endless papers which all come out of the same mould, which are all diligent and competent, and which all follow the standard model: really, it’s you that I really want to write for - to encourage you to think again, to break the mould.  At worst, you could get rejected for being bright and original, which is better than being rejected for being just as boring as everyone else!

Easy for me to say.  So, really, I should begin with the advice that you’ll find in any writing textbook (although I may be a little briefer): if you want to get a good grade for your scholarly paper from your professor, or if you want your article to be accepted (or at least read) by a journal editor, then find out what they want, and give it to them.  That sounds so cynical that I can hardly bring myself to type it - but if your instructor or professor has a list of things that she/he wants you to say in your paper, or a particular pet format or (it happens) a pet phrase, or a pet theorist that you must include, then it would be foolhardy (up to a point) to ignore that.  Similarly, some journals are clearly trying to come across to their peers as intellectual citadels (or, if you prefer, pretentious jargon-ridden garbage) and it would be (at least to begin with) rather a waste of time to present them with a paper that doesn’t check those boxes.

And I’m not talking about the mechanical details of format, word-length, referencing and stuff like that.  Frankly, if you can’t be bothered to read the University style sheet, or the requirements for contributors, and follow them to the letter, then you get no sympathy from me.  Even the best, the most sympathetic, the kindliest of editors (and they are, despite what you might think, in the majority) faced with the daily mountain of submissions, is only too delighted to find a way of reducing their workload.  (And, of course, the chances are that a paper with the wrong format for this journal may have already been rejected by another journal.)  Editors, unless provoked, put aside papers with regret, knowing that they may be missing a gem: but sloppy thinking in one area might suggest that there is sloppy thinking elsewhere.  Don’t give them any excuses. (So if you notice that no articles in that journal have sentences beginning with ‘And’, or ‘So’, you might deduce that the editors have some (irrational) objection to these perfectly logical and widely-used structures, and adapt accordingly. The same goes for personal pronouns.  Hatred of personal pronouns is not only cyclical (in the 1980s they were all the rage) but is also a function of how low or high you are on the academic scale. The lower you are, the greater the tendency to hide an opinion (“I think”) behind a gross inaccuracy (“It is thought that...”)

All of that simply means: follow the rules. And use common sense: for example, when you’re researching and reading, always write down the precise references for every quotation, and the precise book details of everything you’ve read.  That means that your bibliography and references are already done when you start to write the article (what a relief), and you never have to go back to check anything. (This is, of course, a piece of advice right out of fantasyland - everybody has to go searching for something they forgot to write down - and (dare I say this) almost everyone sometimes fakes a reference.) 

(Should also mutter that I’m not talking here to anyone who thinks that searching internet essay-banks constitutes research, or even legitimate intellectual activity.  I’ve never quite understood how anyone who cheats their way into a qualification can ever take that qualification seriously.  Maybe they don’t. Or don’t care. )

Having assembled (for a term paper) lots of material-that-other-people-have-thought-of OR my inspired insight backed up by lots of material-that-other-people-have-though of, then put your material into an acceptable shape. This usually means a logical exposition: an introduction, thesis, illustrations and discussion, conclusions - you can read that advice anywhere, and if you do that, then you should pass.

But you won’t stand out.  There’s a saying in lecturing that you only have to be competent to be outstanding: the same is, sadly, this true of writing - but how can you be SO outstanding that you get an A+++ and editors take your articles?  No magic bullet, but some suggestions...

For scholarly articles, it helps a good deal if you have something to say - you might be surprised how often articles submitted to journals don’t have anything to say (and it’s only polite, when you do have an idea, to read around a bit to see if you’re the first to have it.)  Try to avoid the temptation of writing what extremely cynical academics call the MPU - Minimum Publishable Unit. The fact is that you might have a good idea, but will it really make an article? Of course, the answer is, that it has to if you want tenure or whatever: and editors have only themselves to blame if they get grossly padded articles, if they will specify that ALL articles shall be, say, 5,000 words: would that all articles (and term papers, come to that) could be as long as they need to be.

The next way to attract attention (apart from simply being literate) is to get off to a striking start.  A lot of grad and undergrad article-writers seem to think that this means insulating their opening paragraph from criticism by citing an authority (often with a pretty tenuous connection to their topic): how many articles have you read (or started to read) that began something like: “As the great critic Peter Hunt has so wisely said, ‘quote’...” (and, by the way, if you’re writing for an international audience or journal, remember that the British and other Europeans do not have the taste for obsequious compliments that Americans have: in Britain, that sentence would read: “As Hunt says..”).  So, if everyone starts obliquely (and how many times have you been told that it is somehow polite to “lead gently into the topic” (you are not wooing your reader!)) then it is far, far more striking to use the simplest, most basic strategy - answer the reader’s primary question straight away - and that is, “why should I bother to read this?”

You might even do this in the title: suppose that I was writing a paper on what might (to judge from her blogs) be Robin’s favourite book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, intending to prove (not difficult) that it is primarily a love-letter to the real Alice which depends on Alice being in love with Carroll (rather more difficult). Which of these titles would catch your eye?

“Ancient Person of My Heart.” Was Alice in Love with Carroll?

Alice Liddell’s Influence on the Sexual and Emotional  Iconography of Wonderland.

 Lewis Carroll and Alice: a Reciprocal Love?

Lewis Carroll and Alice: a Reciprocal Love.

“You Didn’t Cry as Much as I Thought You Would.” The Relationship Between Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson.

And which of these beginnings?

The question of whether the seven-year-old Alice Liddell reciprocated the feelings of “Lewis Carroll” has vexed scholars for many years.

The whole tone and feeling of  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland depends on the fact that Alice Liddell was as much in love with Carroll as he was with her.

Critic and Biographer Morton Cohen states “the attitude of Alice Liddell to Carroll” remains uninvestigated. In this paper, I investigate it.

If you use the “newspaper strategy” - tell your reader the ANSWER straight away, then you may well be breaking an academic mould, but most editors (and professors) will be grateful.  Academic writing is predicated on the totally spurious and impractical premise that readers willingly read your whole article/paper to the end. This doesn’t happen in real life: as a writer, you might wish that the reader will read every golden word.  But as a reader - what do you want from the paper - and the answer is - you want the answer.  If you give your reader the answer - what it is that you have deduced or concluded, right at the beginning, then they can judge straight away whether to read (or accept, or grade highly) your article.  But they won’t read it all  you might wail. Well, no: why should they? Would you?

And then carry on, as if you were writing to a sensible, intelligent reader, who has very little patience, and doesn’t really want to have to decode unnecessarily dense writing.  As Jonathan Swift said in Tale of a Tub (and I paraphrase, this being a Blog, and not a refereed journal...): “Articles are like wells. If the water is clear you can see to the bottom, however deep the well. If the writing in an article is clear, readers will understand deep ideas. If the water is muddy, you don’t know how deep it is - but there are always fools who assume (as with articles) that it is wondrous deep, because it is wondrous dark.”

Remember that good editors/professors will not notice/care if you don’t use  the latest fashionable words - here’s a selection to translate

familial group
textual representation
fictional works
the present author suggests
disrupts the diegetic levels of narration
disruption of the spatio-temporal narrative axis
mediates the character through the locus of control of the text
provides a ludic space for readers to escape their material positions

And, small things that can make a difference. For example, don't do what everyone else does - which is to name the author of an idea and then give the idea. It is the IDEA that is important, not the Author. So DON'T begin with the obsequious quote: “The famous critic William Shakespeare says incisively that  ‘Carroll was in love with Alice’...” Say, “The suggestion that Carroll was in love with Alice’” (Shakespeare 2009: 3) is not useful to my argument, because I argue that whether Alice was in love with Carroll is vital to understanding the books.”  It makes a big difference. Write to the point. Write REAL.

I write the whole paper in note form first. Don't look for the fine phrases: get the ideas in order. And always use newspaper-story structure - that is, ALL the punch at the beginning - the question and the answers. Then lay out the argument, every paragraph beginning with topic sentence (as you were taught in high school!) and relating to the title and the topic. Big signposts all the way. Don't summarise at the end - there is nothing more tedious than a page (or pages in PhDs) which say - just in case you haven’t read the abstract or the article, here it all is again.   Endings should be strong: ask more questions! What else could come out of this?  What are good links?

Oh, and another rule. Don't Accept Anyone’s Ideas without thinking about them and, if possible, disagreeing. However ‘distinguished’ they are.  Sorry, but I'm no respecter of persons in that way.  Great critics can write rubbish, and do.

In fact, this whole blog can be distilled into two words: “Be you”!  Well, seven words: ‘Be you, and keep the brain awake!.”

Good luck.


Peter Hunt
Visiting Professor, Newcastle University UK
Emeritus Professor, Cardiff University UK
Visiting Professor, Hollins University Children’s Literature Summer School, 2005, 2013