Nov 22, 2023

"less surfacy"

Phil Christman:

So I started stressing, from the first day of school, in all my assignment documentation, in my discussions with students, etc., that in a college context, the function of writing begins to shift from “showing the teacher you did all the homework” to “saying something that not everybody already knows.” (My expectations about what counts as “obvious” have to be freshman-appropriate, of course; if a student argues that Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a poem about the relationship between style and subject, I don’t respond to this with the scorn that I might if I were teaching that same poet to grad students in American literature. It’s not a point that’s obvious to a roomful of freshmen at a first reading. It counts.)

And I make it very clear that this is a bedrock expectation for every paper. We spend class time trying out various ideas and even practicing noticing the difference between “more surfacy” and “less surfacy.” It’s of paramount importance to me, so I don’t let it be tacit. If it matters enough to determine their grade, you’ve gotta talk about it, and you’ve gotta practice recognizing it when it arrives.

Amen to all that. It’s also why I make the idea of “participatory readiness” our first reading, and an idea we discuss repeatedly over the semester.