Category Archives: Writing

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Reclaiming History for the Future

A specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term. We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterized by a shortage of long-term thinking. Rising sea levels and other threats to our environment; mounting inequality; rotting infrastructure. Our culture lacks a long-term perspective.

Where can we turn for deep knowledge?

To history—the discipline and its subject matter.

Putting long-termism into practice is hard. When we peer into the future, instead of facts, we routinel…

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History, Hashtags, and the Truth About Slavery

When we sat down last week to read The Economist’s dismaying—and subsequently retracted—review of Edward E. Baptist’s new history of American slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, we experienced a strong sense of déjà vu.

The anonymous Economist reviewer objected to Baptist’s portrayal of slavery as a brutal system of “calibrated pain” that provided the foundation for the rise of American capitalism, concluding, “Mr. Baptist has not writte…

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Betray Our Students for Publisher’s Profit?

I recently received an email from a “consultant” inviting me to help a publisher create an automatic essay-grading technology product for humanities professors to use in introductory-level courses. The consultant claimed that once completed, the program would “accurately auto-grade brief writing assignments – 500 to 900 words.” The program, the email said, “uses specific writing prompts and rubrics to achieve computer grading accuracy.”

And how will these impressive results be achieved, you ask?…

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The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher

A week before the first paper was due, a young woman in my class raised her hand and asked where the rubric was.

Shamefaced and stuttering, I had to admit that I had no idea what a rubric was. She helpfully explained that this was a set of guidelines explaining what I expected them to write, how I expected them to write it, and how each aspect of the paper would be evaluated. A set of boxes that students could check off to guarantee that they had met my expectations. For all intents and purposes…

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Cursive Is an Endangered Species

hotchkiss photo

(Photo courtesy of the author)

Over the past decade or so, something big has been happening in public schools throughout the United States: Instruction in cursive writing has all but disappeared, cut from curricula as schools bring more technology (and keyboarding) into the classroom. The new Common Core Standards for education omit training in cursive handwriting altogether. Even in the few schools where cursive is still taught, the subject is often covered in one year and writing in cursive is…

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In Praise of Dispraise

Each year I attend 30 or more literary readings sponsored either by the colleges where I teach or by bookstores and community organizations. Their quality varies both in performance (writers are not necessarily good readers of their work) and in the writing itself. Sometimes I feel “like some watcher of the skies/when a new planet swims into his ken.” Other times, I am held hostage.

At one literary-nonfiction reading this year, when the writer (who is white) reached an insight she thought brilli…

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Check Your History

From God and Man at Yale to The Closing of the American Mind to Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, there is a thriving market for memoirs of oppressed white men in the academy. The young man arrives in the Ivy League, ready to learn about Western civilization and read the Great Books, and instead finds a nest of vipers: feminists, queer activists, decadent drawling libertines, and egghead communist weenies. He notes, with regret, the erosion of the American university by t…

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The ‘Relatable’ Fallacy

I think I first heard a student declare a book “not relatable” about five years ago. I got the gist, but the word struck me as strange, clumsy. Before long, though, it had become a regular part of student vernacular, and I started to see it even in the The New York Times. Students use this word to express their sense that a text can be related to, that it is accessible to them. Unsurprisingly, contemporary pop culture is by and large relatable. Daniel Defoe? Not relatable. There’s a kind of po…

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In Defense of ‘Expressionist Crap’

Personal writing is frivolous, something best left to those students with the poor judgment to actually major in creative writing. This was essentially the opinion I heard expressed in an English-faculty meeting last fall. We should be teaching our first-year, general-education students to write for their intended professions, my colleague said; teaching “expressionist crap” is a pointless diversion, a waste of our students’ time and ours.

I have been on the fringes of higher education, as an ad…

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Assignment: Research Your Adjunct Teachers

In the Fall 2013 term, having graduated from Warren Wilson College with an M.F.A. in poetry—a terminal degree, of course—I found myself teaching composition courses as an adjunct for the eighth consecutive semester. This semester, however, was different from the others not only in the workload but also in the commute: I worked on two campuses in two states, with 30 miles of freeway, part of it under construction, between them. On top of that, I taught five courses.

The first institution I taught…