Comp as Philosophy 

Editing life's narrative

John Rember

I spent much of my time as a college professor teaching first-year students how to write. Such teaching is labor-intensive. A 750-word essay will take 45 minutes to correct and comment on. Most semesters I taught two or three 18-person composition classes. Lots of nights I didn't get to bed until morning. Lots of mornings, I got up early to correct papers before class.

I'm not complaining. It was good work--right livelihood, if you want to get Buddhist about it. People need to know how to write, not so they can hold down jobs, but so they can think. Joan Didion, in her essay, "Why I Write," says that she never knows what she thinks about anything until she starts putting it down on paper. She also says that writing is her way of having a self, which is a scary thought: If you can't write, maybe selfhood, that complex interaction of culture, genes, perspective and experience, might be beyond you.

At the start of a semester, I'd put three words on the board: Author. Authority. Authentic. Then I'd ask them to give me 1,000 words on whether or not the I in their personal essays was authentic or just a fiction made up by other people.

It doesn't always go over well when you tell 18-year-olds that who they are has been constructed by parents, religious authorities, marketing CEOs and teachers. Still, most of them could comprehend the idea that after 12 regimented years in classrooms, didactic religious instruction and a lifetime diet of advertising and social networking, they might not be as real as they had assumed they were before they hit college.

It was the first time many of them had looked at themselves from outside themselves. They tended not to enjoy the experience. They hadn't come to college to define a self, they'd come to college to get a good education so they could get a good job so they could raise a good family, go on enviable two-week vacations for 40 years and end up demented and dying in a good nursing home. Giving real meaning to any of these things was hard and frightening work and, in general, their 750-word essays were confused and contradictory.

My usual grade for these deeply personal but deeply flawed life stories was a C. Maybe a C-minus. It was not a happy classroom when my students got these essays back.

"This hurts," they would say.

"You need to know," I would say.

Then: "I'm not grading you, I'm grading your writing. Well, maybe I'm grading you a little bit. Not much, but imagine that someplace, underneath all the cultural and family baggage, there's this little tiny self. It's a timid little thing, and actually it's kind of happy to get a C-minus because it was sure it was going to get an F. What we're going to do, over the next 10 weeks or so, is get it out in the sunshine, exercise it a little bit, feed it some nutritious ideas and transform it from a little C-minus self all the way to a healthy, normal, B-minus self."

Somebody would always want to know how they could get an A-plus self.

"No such thing," I'd say. "Human beings are inherently flawed. If you hear of somebody having an A-plus self, you can be pretty sure that they have a marketing department."

My students would hand in a 750-word essay on Fridays. I'd sacrifice my weekends, and would hand back my edits and comments on Mondays. Wednesdays we would discuss the upcoming assignment and the meaning of self-in-society.

By the end of the semester, they'd have 8,000 words of returned essays, with my red marks all over them. My final assignment was to re-write all of the essays using what they now knew about being a self.

It was payday. Students discovered the self that had written the first essay wasn't as good as the self that did the re-write. The new self could fix things and go beyond my comments to actually say something meaningful and true.

"I can't believe I wrote that first terrible paper," students would say. "I can't believe how much I've improved."

"Your little selves all get B-minuses," I'd say. "But a few of you have become such good writers that I have to send a couple of A's to the registrar."

"Does it hurt?" they would say.

"More than you know," I would say.

I'd like to say that it was my magic teaching skills that caused so many of my students to become good writers, but there's no magic to it. Write 8,000 words over 11 weeks, get detailed feedback, re-write the same 8,000 words to be clearer, stronger and more profound, and you'll be a better writer--maybe even a good writer. It doesn't take that long once you get after it.

The trouble is, of course, that too many people graduate from college thinking they've acquired a body of knowledge rather than a foundation for acquiring more complicated and contradictory knowledge. They quit re-writing their selves. After awhile, the window of flexibility that college once opened slams shut and can only be reopened the hard way, by trauma or grief.

Soon after graduation most people come to rigid definitions of who they are and what they're here for. Unfortunately, the culture tempts them with easy answers to the painful questions they sweated over in comp class.

So they trade their god-given lives for money. They accept shallow dogmatic answers to deep philosophical questions. They confuse the maps of their lives with the territory, and follow the paved routes. Sure enough, when they get their Lifetime Achievement Awards, they're everything they always thought they would be, even if doesn't look right on the page.

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