Gonzo Academicus

Gonzo Academicus

Justine Bateman—actress, entrepreneur, mother of two, and media consultant—enrolled as an undergraduate at UCLA in the fall of 2012, at the age of 46.

She maintains a Tumblr about the ups and downs of her experience called Get a College Life, and she has inspired many others who have enrolled in college at “nontraditional” ages. The blog is continually engaging, and I love when she posts the hand written cheat sheets created by her and her peers.

About a month ago, she posted about one of the most bewildering aspects of navigating a typical undergraduate curriculum: general education requirements. I vividly recall my confusion at the need to map compulsory subject areas to the many course options available when I was an undergrad at Oregon. And one of the compulsory general education courses over which students typically have little choice is first-year writing.

Bateman’s argument makes sense. She wrote:

“Also, just found out that I have to take these ridiculous GEs I was trying to get out of. I petitioned to substitute these very topic-similar upper division classes I’d already taken for these basic, lower division classes and they refused. I really don’t see the academic logic. If I’ve taken the more advanced versions of the classes they want me to take and I received A’s in those classes, doesn’t that give weight to the argument to use them as replacements?”

Many schools will substitute courses, but many schools also have a general education credit hour requirement that must be fulfilled in order to graduate (and the logics are often rooted in accreditation and administrative concerns). More important, where it might not matter if one took Anthropology 212 instead of Sociology 103 in order to check off the “social sciences” box of the general ed. curriculum, there’s typically little leeway when it comes to the writing requirement.

After a couple weeks, Bateman once again expressed her frustration with general ed, and with the writing requirement in particular:

“Already set for next quarter. Italian, Business Law, and Computer Organization (CS33 - Machine Language). (And a required english composition class they’re forcing me to take. Really?)”

I admit, I had three nearly simultaneous reactions when I read this post: (a) a defensive response rooted in my own attachment to writing as a worthwhile academic pursuit; (b) a sympathetic response rooted in my own desire to navigate both undergraduate and graduate curricula as quickly as possible while minimizing time and effort spent on subjects for which I had no investment; and (c) a thought experiment response rooted in a desire to push back against (a) and (b): what if taking the class improved one’s writing, regardless of their circumstances?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot in the last six months or so. Like many of my peers in academe, I’ve always been “good at” writing. But then again, I mostly write for academic audiences, and academic writing is regularly critiqued for being obtuse, jargon-filled, overly hedged, and generally esoteric.

Picture a continuum where, on one end is the argumentative acumen of a gifted third grader and on the other is Susan Sontag and John McPhee (or whomever you’d like to substitute for these masterful non-fiction writers). If I’m being honest, my prose is much, much closer to the gifted third grader than it is Sontag and McPhee.

The reality is that I still have so much to learn about writing, and about being a better writer. And I get paid to study writing. As I thought more about Bateman’s predicament within the context of my own ability as a writer, I started to think about my own need to continually learn and improve.

A few months ago I re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and realized that I’d gotten into lots of bad habits. I also read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say (a common FYC text). I learned much from all three books, but my overriding realization was that I still have a long way to go as a writer.

Let me put this another way: I am a writing professor, but I bet I’d learn quite a lot about writing if I enrolled in a first-year writing course with an open and earnest comportment to learn and improve.

Revisiting core concepts and diligently practicing my chops would surely contribute to my learning. But I’d argue that some of the most innovative teaching in our field occurs in the first year course, where bright graduate students and non-tenured faculty are continually reimagining what the course can and should do. As professors, we often learn from our graduate students in the seminars we lead; I bet we’d learn much from them as our teachers, too.

So I started to think about a kind of gonzo academicism (for lack of better term). What if we know-it-all types (the finger is squarely pointed at myself) took an FYC course?

Better yet, what if 10 writing professors at various stages in their careers and at various kinds of institutions enrolled in FYC courses for one semester at their schools and then contributed to a group blog about their experiences?

I can’t imagine that this would be a bad thing for our understanding of pedagogy and curricula in our respective institutions. And I’m willing to bet that our prose would improve. Wouldn’t we learn to be better writers, and to sympathize with our students and FYC instructors? How could we not?

A writing professor taking a first year writing course may well be different than an anthropology professor taking Anthro 101. I see this as a strength of our field. We can always improve our writing. We can learn from people along the continuum. We never stop learning how to write.

(Bateman, meanwhile, seems to be liking her writing instructor so far.)


Koger said...

This is a topic I've been thinking about for the last several months as well. I used to be an academic adviser at one of the CSUs here in California and constantly extolled the benefits of General Education. Plus, the majority of the students I dealt with were Undeclared or were apathetic about their majors anyway (which I guess is an issue in and of itself). Recently, I had my FYC students write about the role of college in society, and there was unanimous dislike for GE requirements. It made me think a lot about what I do and what I believe. I've looked at websites like Coursera which offer free online writing classes, but then part of me wonders, "What if I failed the class?" It seems highly unlikely, but I suppose there's always a chance. That being said I've decided to read academic literature more and focus more on style to try and practice what I preach and to stay on top of things. A number of my friends who finished grad school a few years ago expressed concern that they were losing their academic chops just by only reading student work and the readings they assign their students. So we've formed a little support group of sorts haha. It seems to help. Anyway, this was a longer comment than I anticipated, but it really hit on a number of things I have been thinking about recently.

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