My Thoughts

Sorry I was unable to participate in what seemed, from the phrases I could pick up here and there, to be an interesting conversation about responding to student work.

I think the draft that Caroline shared showcases perhaps the two biggest challenges facing beginning student writers: (a) having a point or idea that drives your writing, and (b) finding the right voice or register to use in making that point. I agree with the comments I could hear—which were basically to tell the student to foreground the idea or question driving his essay, to give his readers a better sense of what all his evidence was evidence of. I’m not sure that I would try to guess myself at what the writer was trying to say, though. Maybe he wants to write about gender, maybe not. Rather, I’d ask him to begin his next draft by explaining some of the binaries he lists near the end of this piece: “homeliness” vs. “foreignness”, or “humbleness” vs. “violence (?), or “desire” vs. “war”. That is, I’d try to get him to build on some of the keywords and ideas he has already introduced.

I read the writer’s style, which truly is strange, as a kind of tortured effort to mimic a discourse that he doesn’t really know yet, to sound like what he thinks an academic or intellectual might sound like. David Bartholomae has written a much-admired essay called “Inventing the University” about this. One way of trying to get him to tone down his style might be to ask him to write a brief summary or abstract of his piece for someone who has read neither his essay nor Babel. That might push him to explain some of his key terms and oppositions in plainer English.  But I suspect it will take him a while to work through the anxiety that I think is behind many of his very odd and inflated sentences.

I actually feel a little more impatient with the author of the Calvino essay. I’m not entirely sure he has actually read Invisible Cities. But even if he has, he doesn’t analyze the novel so much as use it, inkblot fashion, as a mere starting point for some sort of pop philosophical riff. I don’t think I learn anything new about Calvino from this. I’d be interested to hear how Isobel responded, but I think I’d be tempted to tell the student that he needs to start over, to try something else.

And what most intrigues me about the Mill-Carlyle essay are the comments in red. Are they the student’s reading of his own piece? Because they seem oddly more insightful than the piece itself. Again, I wish that technology allowed me to hear more about this essay and the course it was written in.

From left field,







Author: Joe Harris

I teach composition, creative nonfiction, and digital writing at the University of Delaware.

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