ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
My relationship with the essay as a form is as complicated as my relationship to teaching; I took a circuitous route to my embrace of both. After getting an M.A. in composition in 1999, I moved first to Louisville and then to Brooklyn with the twofold goal of finding myself and avoiding academia. I documented the implementation of a medical records database for a hospital chain, tended bar at a hospital lobby, worked dozens of temp jobs, served as communication manager for a corporate barter agency (don’t ask), sold my soul to public relations for a short time, worked for a record label, taught writing to new immigrants, and wrote verse and prose about all of it as I went that I read aloud at open mic readings. One of my friends from the open mic circuit had a boyfriend who chaired the English Department at a small liberal arts college, and when I broke off a failed long-term relationship and quit my job to make a living as an antiquarian bookseller, he suggested I supplement my income by teaching a couple of classes adjunct at his college.
After four years of teaching sentence-level grammar to people who struggled to form sentences in English—a kind of teaching whose rewards exist outside the academic enterprise—I found working with standard-issue traditional college students both easier and more difficult. With most (but not all) of the students coming into my business communication and media writing classes exhibiting a basic proficiency with written language, I was able to address their more subject- and profession-driven needs. I was also disheartened to find that the increased proficiency with the written word did not necessarily translate to love.
Two years later, after meeting and marrying another faculty member at the college and becoming a full-time visiting lecturer first in the department of Communication Studies and then in Academic Writing, I was called in to a meeting with the provost. He told me that it was his understanding that I didn’t have a terminal degree, and if I wanted to continue teaching there I had to get one. Thanking my lucky stars that he didn’t just tell me to hit the bricks, I began looking at MFA programs. My provost had said he didn’t much care what genre I studied, so long as I could show him (or, as it turned out, the next provost) a degree at the end of my studies. Having developed a robust distaste for the notion of genre over many years of reading my work aloud, I professed not to care either; the most important thing to me was to use this enforced study time to become a better writer while continuing to teach fulltime. My friend’s boyfriend—the one who’d brought to teach at this college in the first place—had graduated from Warren Wilson, and recommended that I look at low-residency MFA programs.
This is what I did, at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had decided to pursue a degree in Creative Nonfiction, without completely understanding what the term meant but liking both words that form it. I worked with a succession of faculty advisors who challenged me to conceive my own definition of the term while reading widely in as many examples as I could of work that fit within it. This was when I discovered or decided that most of what I’d written—memoir, poetry, criticism, even fiction and just about everything in the space between them —could fit under the umbrella term “essay,” and also that the life I’d been living, the reading I did both to learn more about the things that interested me but also just for the joy of living in words, was all research for the work I was producing. I started for the first time to call myself an essayist.
Like many of the deluded souls who willingly and knowingly call themselves essayists, I’ve intuited what an essay is (in the non-standardized, anti-five-paragraph sense) by ingesting as much as I could of any things that were called essays. This included many volumes of The Best American Essays. I’ve thought and written some on this relationship I’ve had with the series as a writer, but I’d love to spend some time thinking about how I’ve begun, over the past three years, to integrate it into my practice as a teacher of writing, especially with freshmen, many of whom are ripe for deprogramming from five-paragraph essay format.
The small liberal arts college where I teach, like many small liberal arts colleges, has fairly expensive tuition, but it also has many scholarship and grant programs to offset this economic hardship. Our administration has also made a concerted effort at international outreach, with a longstanding institutional connection to the United Nations (perhaps coincidentally our current campus, before it became our campus, was the alternate site considered for the United Nations before the midtown site was built in the 1950s). What this has meant for the student population, at least in my ten years’ experience teaching here, has been that we get wide range of backgrounds: some ultra-rich with midtown and downtown jobs waiting for them upon graduation, some international students who’d never been to the United States before coming to our campus, quite a few from middle-class Long Island, Hudson Valley, and Jersey families seeking training in teaching and other social service professions, and a growing number of first-generation college students who need guidance (as I once did) on what being a college student entails. I say all this to emphasize that when I stress the importance of developing individual voice in relationship to critical thinking and research, it’s not necessarily out of a conviction to advocate for my students, or even to get them to self-advocate, though I relish the opportunity to do this if I find a student needs me to. At least as importantly, I’m asking them to subject their own perspective to the critical gaze. To do this, of course, they first have to acknowledge that they, as writers, have voices.
My college’s academic writing program requires freshmen to enroll in Freshman Writing for both semesters with the same professor, which means that I have all of my freshmen for a full year. The first semester runs in conjunction with a freshman seminar taught by a faculty member in one of the specific disciplines. The writing professor co-plans with the seminar professor, developing three shortish (3-5pp) essays that fit into boxes that reflect departmental goals—Description, Analysis, Persuasion—and fold in with the thematic material covered in the seminar. I try to work some kinks into the grooves of these fairly staid objectives, but for the most part these assignments are table-setting for the work we do in the second semester, plugging holes each of them come in with as writers and establishing some working terminology. The seminar only runs the first semester, so for the second semester the students are all mine. This is when I get to really have some fun with them.
The second semester has only one graded assignment, in multiple drafts: the Freshman Essay. A 12-15pp, research-based paper cited in MLA style, the Freshman Essay is graded at the end of the semester on a rubric addressing academic imperatives our department has developed that reflect concerns that will probably be familiar to any teacher of academic writing: grammar and style, structure and clarity, development and analysis, format and citation. The Freshman Essay, in simpler terms, should be a representative sample of the student’s best writing by the end of their first year. In writing as in travel, though, many journeys can end at the same point and still be unique and individual, and the straight line is almost always the least interesting.
My college’s department of Academic Writing has five full-timers, with a wide swath of backgrounds and approaches: a poet, a poet/YA writer, a film studies PhD, a traditional composition/rhetoric PhD, and a CNF person (me). As one might expect, we all have quite different approaches to this final essay (and even the shorter ones that constitute the first-semester curriculum). Liz, our film studies PhD, has her students learn and practice the Rogerian model wherein students, in her words, “keep an even (though not necessarily formal) tone throughout and build in at least one credible counterargument,” while Mary Jo, our comp/rhet person, has her students read one novel in January, then has each of her students find a critical perspective from which to research further and develop an essay.
My own method gestated out of three major directives: 1) making the process of writing as organic as possible, 2) modeling from other essays to find workable methods and structures for developing an essay from conception to product, and 3) bridging the not-oppositional directives of critical thinking as both an academic requirement and a rewarding personal enterprise. Toward these ends, I have students keep a writing journal for both semesters, read some craft-related work, and discuss “big” questions they would like to explore in writing. By “big” I don’t necessarily mean global or general, but rather questions that loom and linger in students’ minds after reading something, or going to a lecture, or having a conversation with a friend or family member, or simply sitting and wondering. This, I believe, is one thing people mean when talking about finding the universal in the particular. Here, though, I’d like to talk in a bit more depth about another tool in my kit.
For the second semester of the past three years, I’ve used each year’s volume of The Best American Essays to address these three objectives. The volumes, edited by Cheryl Strayed, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Ariel Levy, embody a wide range of conceptions of what an essay is, determined in part by the background and temperament of each editor. We always start our reading with the editor’s introduction and Robert Atwan’s annual preface, just to wake everyone up from the winter break and get them in conversation about what a longform essay, and their Freshman Essay in particular, can be.
We then spend much of the semester reading roughly two essays a week, with one student leading conversation on it after meeting with me.  As a baseline, I ask students to respond in their writing journals after reading each essay.  In these responses students can just summarize the essay, they can respond personally or critically to an individual point, they can pick out a passage to read to the class; the key is to get their initial responses in writing before they forget them. I find this also makes the student-led discussions run more smoothly, as the discussion leaders can feel more confident addressing their peers knowing they can alleviate dead silence by just asking a classmate to read his or her response.
In addressing how this process addresses the three directives I’ve stated in teaching the Freshman Essay, I’d like to look at how students responded to and used some of the essays from this year’s volume, edited by Ariel Levy, if only because our semester has just ended and they’re fresh on my mind. Just a few sentences of Levy’s introduction gifted me with a pitch-perfect segue into thinking with students about planting idea-seeds (I use a lot of gardening metaphors in my teaching), and got many of my students excited about catching what could possibly be the beginning of their Freshman Essay in their writing journals: “The problem with ideas is that you can’t decide to have them….Because whatever its narrative shape, an essay must have an idea as its beating heart. And ideas come to you on their own terms. Searching for an idea is like resolving to have a dream.” 
Perhaps what I most enjoy about using BAE is the potential for surprise and discovery lurking with each essay, both in my individual conversations with students before they present and in the student-led conversations themselves. In the individual meetings I try to give students the chance to tell me what they got out of their essays, then I perhaps tell them a bit of what I took from the essay, and we work to find some questions for discussion, particularly interesting passages, and most importantly some “moves” the essayist makes—how and why the writer made these choices, and how and in what situations we might emulate or model these choices.
Possibly the most important choices to address in a writing class for college freshmen involve what we mean when we talk about thinking critically. I find that many students come into their freshman year thinking simultaneously that they know everything (in a more general sense) and that they know little to nothing (as applies to academia). I think that’s another challenge of teaching freshmen to think and write critically—somehow bridging those two poles enough that students are comfortable expressing their most composed selves in an academic environment.
This year’s BAE has plenty of conceptions of what it means to think critically, including personal writing. I think of Kelly Sundberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset”— intimately, soul-baringly personal, but also thoroughly excavated and arranged. We even got into discussions of the fractured narrative as an organizational method for traumatic material, which two of my students tried out on their Freshman Essays. I try to get students to see that Sundberg holds her lived experience to a similar critical standard that, say, New Yorker writer and frequent BAE selection Malcolm Gladwell holds his almost entirely impersonal essays like this year’s selection, “The Crooked Ladder.”
Some essays, like Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach,” Philip Kennicott’s “Smuggler,” and Ashraf H.A. Rushdy’s “Reflections on Indexing My Lynching Book,” are simultaneously objective and subjective. Smith semiotically analyzes an ubiquitous billboard while questioning her own culpability in gentrifying her neighborhood. Kennicott gives an intensely personal critique of Twentieth Century homosexual literature, how it shaped him as a gay man and promulgated conceptions that hound gay culture even today. And Rushdy examines the cumulative effect on his own psyche of listing and annotating his work, giving many of my students perhaps their first glimpse into the intensely personal rigor of long-term research:
During the past decade and a half of research I have read so many tables and charts and lists of lynchings without thinking in the least about how these items were composed, about what kind of emotional investment they express. Now that I have finally compiled my own such list, I know better, much better than I did during my research, how to look for what went into the composition of those tables and charts and indices.
This is also a great way to think about BAE as a teaching tool—the essays serve to defuse many hangups students have about research. None of them are in MLA format and most don't have any footnotes, but a fun thing to do with students is to have them find all the sources the essays use that could be cited in MLA format. Then they see that most essays are critical and research-based, even if they are also personal.
And many are also great examples of narrative nonfiction principles, including John Reed’s “My Grandma the Poisoner,” Anthony Doerr’s “Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul,” Kendra Atleework’s “Charade,” and Tiffany Briere’s “Vision.” My student Katherine wrote her Freshman Essay specifically on the personal narrative after reading “Charade” and “Vision,” telling me  at the end of the semester:
With both texts I identified their style of narrative and specific examples that made each piece stand out. In Atleework’s it was her ability to alternate between her past and present selves to tell the story. Briere also followed a tradition of familial stories, to expand on her personality; the side that believes that and the other side that is more scientific.
This questioning of oneself and one’s motives, allowing oneself to be complex and multidimensional while also retaining a critical eye, is something my students picked up on with a number of essays, including Meghan Daum’s “Difference Maker,” Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God,” and Hilton Als’ “Islands.” “Islands,” in fact, prompted at least two students to blow up their planned essays in late March and go in entirely different stylistic directions, something I allow them to do if they can explain and justify the shift. Another student, a sociology major, decided after reading Rebecca Solnit’s walking-essay “Arrival Gates” to write her Freshman Essay while walking through New York City and reading a list of essays we developed together, thinking about her mind at work and the city at work around her, while a partially deaf student decided after reading Kate Lebo’s “The Loudproof Room” to research and write about her affliction candidly for the first time.
These examples dovetail with another proposition I give that scares the hell out of many students—to be open to changing their minds in the process of writing. Which often leads to a favorite topic of mine to discuss: authority.
I’ve found, as a reader of books and a watcher of movies and a listener of popular song, that much of the authority an audience concedes to a writer, speaker, or narrator is dualistic: on the one hand, we have what might be called expert authority, which comes from accumulating knowledge and experience with the subject one is expounding, and on the other we have what I’ll call human authority, something harder to quantify but which might boil down simply to empathic trust. I find these two types of trust frequently at odds with each other. If we as readers grant that the writer knows more than we do about the topic or focus of a piece, that concession naturally discourages us from feeling a bond of shared experience with the author. But if a reader bonds with the author of a text on a human level to the point where there is an implied shared experience with the author, doesn’t that undermine the status of the author as an expert, as an authority?
And some essays are fun to teach simply for the challenge they present in teaching them. Cheryl Strayed’s selection, “My Uniform,” is brief and decidedly non-academic, and concludes with the you-have-to-be-there image of her husband pressing the cut-out crotch of her old yoga pants to his nose and inhaling deeply. I actually had to talk this one out with my wife before meeting with the poor students tasked with presenting it to the class; she was the one who reminded me that one of the key reasons people, myself and my wife included, read Strayed is precisely because she goes there. So my students and I had some lively (and one acutely uncomfortable) class discussions about ways that they can go there but still write an academic essay, and also choosing a memorable, symbolic image with which to end an essay so your reader will remember the experience of reading it.
The challenge and joy of teaching the wide range of short-form nonfiction in The Best American Essays is that each piece is so different, yet each is called an essay. To me, this is a wonderful prong to my mission of deprogramming my freshmen from the standardized-test essay so many of them think is the only way to think of the form, and toward a conception of the essay simply as a written extension of themselves in conversation with the world.
For Andrew Bodenrader, who led Manhattanville College's academic writing department until his death in May. He allowed me the freedom and encouragement to develop and discuss my ideas on writing pedagogy, literature, what it is to live well, and major league baseball. His loss leaves a great hole in my teaching and writing life.
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In addition to academic writing, John Proctor also teaches media writing and communication theory at Manhattanville College. An active reader on the New York City open mike scene, he’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published most recently in New Madrid Journal of Contemporary Literature, Atlas & Alice, The Weeklings, Essay Daily, The Normal School, and DIAGRAM, and is forthcoming in an international anthology of microfiction. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a recent Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.
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