Monday, September 10, 2007

Blog Entry

Pretty catchy title for a blog entry, don't you think? Or are any of you actually reading this blog?

It's nearly time for my Composition 2 students to write their first essay. We've gone through the introduction to the course, the online orientation, an introduction to academic thinking and reading, and now they're watching Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the first of several sources of varying opinions about global warming. Their first assignment is what we call a summary/strong response essay--students are charged with writing an essay that summarizes the main arguments of the documentary and then responds to them, agreeing with some points and disagreeing with others, taking into account both the subject matter (what Al Gore presents about global warming) and also the rhetorical concerns (the persuasive strategies used, the purpose, the audience, the format of the material, and so forth).

I'm dreading these first essays.

Oh, not for the reasons you think. These students have made it through Composition 1, so presumably they can write reasonably well. It's not that I'm expecting dreadful essays (although I occasionally get them). It's also not the grading load--60+ drafts to look over. Rather, I'm dreading the beginnings.

My students seem to think that titles are disposable, unimportant. So despite my mention to them already that titles should engage the reader and imply or reveal something about the essay's main idea, I will get titles like "Blog Entry," stating the obvious:
  • "My Essay"
  • "Essay 1"
  • "Summary/Strong Response Essay"
Only slightly better are the essays titled "A Response to An Inconvenient Truth." At least that title tells the reader what the essay is about in vague terms.

I ask my students this question: If you were looking at the table of contents of a magazine and saw an article titled "My Article," would you read it? I usually have one or two students raise their hands (I suspect these are the students who think cereal box prose is High Literature or they are just being smart alecs), but the rest of the class just sit with Cheshire grins on their faces. I then launch into my soapbox about titles.

And guess how they generally fix the problem? By eliminating the title altogether. What's an English professor to do?

Once we get past the title, it's time to deal with the atrocious introductions. I'm not sure where students learned how to write introductions, because I know that no conscientious high school English teacher would give a student a passing essay grade with some of the introductions I receive. Here's a representative sample of what my students submit to me:

1. The Long-Term-Memory Beginning
. All too common, the Long-Term-Memory Beginning is so named because it sounds a lot like the stories your 93-year-old grandfather tells: "When I was just a kid..." or "When I was born...." My students aren't far enough removed from their childhoods to use these starts, so instead they turn to a Jungian "collective unconscious" beginning:
  • "Since the beginning of time, man has had to deal with Mother Nature." (Really? I don't recall, even drawing upon the collective unconscious, humanity being around at the beginning of time.)
  • "Since the time of Adam and Eve..." (The church-going students prefer this take.)
  • "Since the time of the cave man..." (Well, at least we are in humankind time.)
Such starts are not only obvious and inaccurate, but they're also not the least bit interesting for the reader.

2. The Webster's Dictionary Definition
. Ah, the joys of the dictionary! And how my eager students love to share definitions with the reader at the beginning of their essays! Now, sharing such definitions is even easier since many print dictionaries have an online presence. Students don't even have to leave their computers to whip up a Webster's Online Dictionary beginning:

  • "Webster's Online Dictionary defines 'global warming' as 'The progressive gradual rise of the earth's surface temperature thought to be caused by the greenhouse effect and responsible for changes in global climate patterns. An increase in the near surface temperature of the Earth. Global warming has occurred in the distant past as the result of natural influences, but the term is most often used to refer to the warming predicted to occur as a result of increased emissions of greenhouse gases. See climate change, greenhouse effect, enhanced greenhouse effect, radiative forcing' ("global warming," s.v. "weather")."
Stunning piece of prose, isn't it? Doesn't it call to you, sing through your veins, make you want to leap joyously into the essay, putting aside your plans to watch Big Brother or read those Kashi Go Lean cereal boxes? Dictionary definitions have a time and place, and often need to be in the introduction in order to help readers understand the issue under discussion. But please, not in the first sentence! Additionally, rephrasing the definition in terms the reader can easily understand would help considerably.

So, readers, are you still with me? Did anyone even read this blog given the title? If you're still out there, leave me a comment--what kind of beginnings grip you? What advice for beginning an essay would you offer up to my students? We use this blog in our classroom, so they'll be reading your responses.

But I suppose if none of you respond, that tells them something, too--boring titles don't work.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Brotherly Love

From time to time, I'll post a creative writing bit I've done. This vignette first appeared in the Decatur Herald & Review's Prairie Talk column in a slightly different form on March 14, 1995, and is dedicated today to my brother Steve, who is shipping off to Iraq this month to serve our country.

Brothers are wonderful and special creatures. I had only sisters until I was six, when my father remarried. My two new brothers introduced me to a breathless, inventive world. But what would we have in common? How would we play together? Surely my brothers would not be interested in playing dolls or jacks.

Soon, with help from my younger brother, Steve, I found myself racing cars down the hallway and swinging through our neighbor’s weeping willow trees. Because we were both avid fans of The Wild, Wild West, we practiced our kicks and karate chops together on my life-sized dancing doll. I was disappointed when the doll, one of my favorites, started to fall apart.

Our martial arts skills were soon put to the test. As we played along the sidewalk of our cul-de-sac one day, Steve spied Pat, a teenage neighbor boy, smoking in the vacant lot two doors down. Impressed by the Smokey the Bear advertisements regularly shown on television at the time, my brother threatened to call ol' Smokey if Pat didn’t put out the cigarette. Unfortunately,the smoking teen did not take the threat lightly; he rewarded my brother's altruism and environmental concern by stuffing him in the neighbor's trash can. Pat and friends jeered at Steve as they forced down the lid.

My brother was a little guy since he had spent the last few years homebound, battling rheumatic fever. He didn’t have the strength to fight off three high school kids, but he put up one heck of a fight. I stood by, helpless, while Steve flailed around in the can, thumping and bumping, to no avail. Finally, inspiration struck me. “Steve,” I yelled, “Remember The Wild, Wild West!” Seconds after that battle cry, my brother rallied, kicking the lid with all of his meager might. The lid flew off the can, startling the high school kids.

Of course, before my brother could escape, the teenagers had the lid back in place and were sitting on top. I had no choice but to scurry home to fetch my parents. They marched to the neighbor’s house, rescued my brother, lectured the boys, and escorted us home. For days afterward, my brother and I spoke proudly of his amazing feat (and his amazing feet). Later, I decided that the damaged doll was a worthwhile sacrifice; perhaps a sister could offer a brother something, after all.

Steve, remember The Wild, Wild West! Serve well and be safe. Love, Kris