Jim. "What I Learned at School.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 43-50.
Jim Corder’s essay playfully reconsiders his overeager commitment to write
nine essays in one semester–projects written from the same nine calls issued to
his students. Corder lays out a few important lessons, and goes on to
explain the antithetical teetering between the openness of invention and the
closed-ness of structure. He acknowledges that much of what he wrote during the
semester-long experiment stemmed from ideas he’d been thinking about for some
time. To that end, Corder concludes that "a semester affords precious
little time for genuine invention, exploration and discovery" (44), and
students often labor against inadequate inventive time. Corder’s lessons, however mundane and ordinary, are important, common-sense
reminders about rethinking what we teach and frequently returning to questions
about what we do and why. The
second half of "What I Learned" is a reprint of "Half Thoughts on a Whole
Semester," the ninth and final essay composed by Corder in fulfillment of his
promise to his students. It’s a self-reflective critique of his
teaching, of his pedagogical emphases (invention and structure), and the
assorted tenets about composition drawn from the experiment (to write one’s own
assignments with students).
I’ve never tried the Corder experiment (if I might rightly assign the name
of the experiment to him), but I think remember hear such practices mocked as
preposterous. How wildly adventurous and glutton for punishment would a
teacher be to do all of the assignments with students? This essay is
forthright and fun; it’s a glimpse inside Corder’s self-consciousness about the
problem of realizing a gap between writing as we stage it for our students and
writing as we engage with it ourselves (habits and purposes rifts, I guess). It’s not exactly clear what Corder would
do differently as a result of the experiment. It’s illuminating stuff (albeit
striped with functionalism), but I came away from the essay with more questions
than answers about what this means for designing a writing course.
I can think of a few occasions when, like Corder, I was tempted to backpedal
or scrap plans–the souring of a pre-semester planning buzz. The flops
were never disastrous; I learned, corrected, made changes for subsequent
semesters. Teaching is endless experimentation, after all. Even when
it’s perfect, student dynamics assuredly flip, redouble. Corder is modest about his
commitment, too; he downplays the significance of following through on his word,
of keeping his end of the agreement rather than changing course, explaining
himself out of it, leaving students with their work. He certainly could have
said, "I take it back." Some
occasions should allow for flexibility, but I admire that Corder actually wrote
the essays and acknowledged the cumbersome, inherent challenges in so doing.
Corder mentions his work with the TUTO rhythmic method. Any idea what
this is? I Googled around for the method, but didn’t come up with
anything. Has anybody heard of this? My hunch is that it involves
invention, pre-writing and generative heuristics, but that’s a long shot.
I can’t find anything on the TUTO acronym, period (TUTOrial?).
We won’t win Braddocks for it, but I like the idea of formally writing
through our lessons learned following a term of teaching. I suppose many comp
programs encourage this sort of self-reflection for their TAs and other folks
who take seriously improvement in their teaching. But lots of part-timers
(and perhaps too many long-term full-timers) stop working through their teaching
questions. Could be a matter of not recognizing the rough spots, not
having the time/energy to devote to self-reflection, or resigning to the
inevitability of grand performances sometimes sailing and other times sinking
because of variability. And so I’ll sneak in a plug for blogs as teaching registers.
Constantly thinking about how much information to reveal here keeps its
exigency, but post-term reflections about assignments, pace, successes and
would-do-differentlies are blogable, I think, and, as such, reflective blogs can
be done responsibly and in ways that build toward an improved teaching manner.
Of course, private teaching notes can serve this purpose, too (and probably ought to if a blog isn’t part of the mix).
Here are a few more pieces from Corder. His short essay is worth a read,
especially if you’ve ever entertained the idea of doing assignments with
students or if you’re interested in the pull between invention and structure.
1. I learned that writing out one’s own assignments is a marvelous corrective
to any tendency one might have for using merely habitual assignments or for
witlessly making thoughtless or stupid assignments.
2. With some of the arguments and assumptions that undergird freshman
composition I am familiar. I know that "the ability to write a literate
essay is the hallmark of the educated person." I know that "a competent student
out to be able to produce a decent piece of writing on call."
3. I learned that I often did precisely what I urged my students not to do: I
hurried; I waited until the last moment, because that was the only moment there
was; I accepted available subjects that came easily to mind; I wrote some "nice"
essays and some "acceptable" essays; once or twice I turned in rough drafts as
if they were finished papers. Perhaps I should add that I did usually get
semicolons in the right place.
4. I need to say more about items 2 and 3 in order to tell what I really
learned, to tell why writing nine essays is a task very nearly not doable.
Perhaps what I really learned is that I have not learned enough. Or
perhaps what I really learned is that part of what I know about writing (though
right enough in its way) is not germane or immediate or companionable when one
is doing the writing.
One more quotation
"I was sitting there looking at the assignment when another dark thought
came: ‘I know how to write this thing,’ I remember saying to myself, ‘but
why in hell would anybody want to?’" (45).
Corder’s Laws of Composition (thinned version)
Ninth law of composition: Everything comes from somewhere and goes some
Eleventh law of composition: Some things precede other things. Invention
precedes structure. Thinking and feeling and being precede writing.
Eighteenth law of composition: You are always standing somewhere when you say
Twenty-fifth law of composition: Invention is an invitation to openness.
Twenty-sixth law of composition: But structure is a closure. You
can’t organize an essay or a sonata unless you have ruled out other
Twenty-seventh law of composition: Invention and structure, then, represent a
way of being in the world.
Thirty-second law of composition: What follows feeds, enlarges, and enriches