Sunday, July 25, 2004

Corder, 1976, "What I Learned at School"

 Corder, 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.

Big Idea
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). 

Wondering About
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.

His lessons:

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 place.
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 something.
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 organizations.
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 what precedes.

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