In preparing to teach CW 110–an advanced nonfiction writing class I teach at UC Berkeley–I glanced over an old syllabus and decided I needed to change it in large part because since I last taught the class three years ago, I’ve begun to use a lot more digital media. And as much as I love Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, I didn’t want to use that book again (I’ve used it every time I’ve taught the class since I created it in 1998!). I’d recently purchased Dinty W. Moore’s Flash Nonfiction but wasn’t sure I wanted to require it as a text for the course. I began poking around on Brevity, thinking that students would enjoy many of the wonderful, very short essays published there. I not only found the essays I wanted to begin the semester with and bookmarked them in the class group on Diigo, but I also found the first assignment: Essay Contest Mystery and Memory.
As much as they eventually enjoy it, students at Berkeley often resist the narrative assignment. Most of them haven’t written narrative since the early years of high school, unless you count the restrictive, formulaic (by design) personal statements they write when they apply to college and grad school. But they’ve read plenty of them and can talk about their favorites and what they’ve learned from reading them, how certain images have stayed with them, how the voices of some writers still resonate with them. We talk about why narratives are so often assigned for them to read but seldom elicited from them as pieces of writing, a topic I spoke about in a recent panel for the American Cultures program at Berkeley– Justice Stories, Resistance Stories and Just Good Stories: Narrative and storytelling as critical pedagogy where I argued for a place at the University for our students’ stories.
Accustomed to reading the stories of important people with important stories, students don’t readily see the significance of their own. Until they begin writing them and reading their classmates’ drafts. At the end of the second draft session, I asked each student to choose a very short passage–no more than two sentences or so–from their draft partner’s essay to read aloud, without comment, to not even say why they had chosen the passage. Just read the title, the author’s name, the passage. As students read aloud, they gasped. The language was stunning, the experiences poignant, moving, humorous. When they heard even these brief excerpts of their own writing in someone else’s voice, their story came alive for them in a new way. More than one student commented that she wanted to read everyone’s narrative.
So they are blogging their narratives along with a brief reflective essay on the experience of writing the narrative. Students who submitted their essays to the Brevity contest will post them later, once a winner has been announced. Though I’m turning mine in late (the deadline was the 14th), I have finally posted it: 1979 almost ’80.
When we were talking about the assignment on the first day or so of class–before they had begun to write–one student expressed his concern that writing his story, sharing it with others, might reduce its significance to him as a special, valued moment in his life. I asked him to reserve judgment on that until after he had written it. As we moved through the draft stages and talked about the process of writing narrative, students spoke frequently about how they understood their stories in a different light as they wrote and revised them, how in writing the narrative, they understood things they hadn’t even thought about before putting the experience into words. They learned something about themselves from the experience.
Several years ago a young man who had taken the advanced writing class–a student who had struggled with his narrative, come to many office hours to look at drafts, avoided the writing–dropped in to my office hours to talk. A medical student at UCSF, he wanted to tell me the story of applying to medical school. He had interviewed at every school he wanted to attend, and that year he was the only Berkeley student to be accepted by all. He knew many of the other Berkeley students had better grades, more impressive internships and research positions. But he knew that during the interviews they were uncomfortable, wanted to impress, didn’t know what to emphasize as they responded to questions. What was different about him? His theory: he had learned to tell his story.
On Tuesday rough drafts were due, and late Monday night (uh-oh!!) I wrote mine. But I had been thinking about the topic a lot (oh dear, I am now imagining how I would respond to the student who said this to me: I have no draft, but I have some ideas; . . .). Anyway. I wrote the draft and I really have been thinking about both the electronic poem by J. R. Carpenter and how we read such texts. So we used my rough draft (at the end of this post if you’re interested) to work with the peer review questions I had prepared for the session. Students did a great job commenting, asking questions, and Rebecca pointed out what she thought to be my working thesis. I was grateful for this confirmation. It seemed clear to everyone that I was addressing the prompt but for a different audience than the one they had in mind and also that I was far more interested in the issue of reading electronic texts than they were. They are focused mainly on interpreting the poem, Entre Ville. They also commented on the fact that I have a lot of questions in the introductory paragraph. As I told them, this is pretty typical of my early stage writing when I have real questions about the topic I’m writing about. Most of them will probably be gone in later drafts (or maybe not; this is something I want to think about more).
On Thursday we looked at second stage drafts and then walked the main part of campus from Unit 2, the residence hall where our classroom is (don’t get me started)
In that workshop students read Entre Ville: This City Between Us, an essay by Carpenter on how and why she created Entre Ville. Students highlighted passages that helped them understand her poem and put “sticky notes” on sections they thought they might use in their essays. Next week: individual draft conferences. Then on to the next assignment!
J. R. Carpenter invites us into her neighborhood in her poem, “Entre Ville,” which is a work that she tells us in “Entre Ville: This City Between Us” has appeared in both print and as an electronic text. The work being read for the purposes of this essay is the electronic text. In it there are several pieces of writing, the main one being “Saint Urbain Street Heat.” While the reader might enjoy other aspects of the entire work more, Carpenter signals this is the main text by making it the most accessible and the most familiar. It is placed in the center of the site, and it is written in an easily recognizable spiral notebook. Any reader familiar with a scroll bar can easily read the entire text. But if this is the only part of the text we read, are we getting the full meaning of her poem? Does she make enough of a connectin in ths part of the larger work for us to get her full meaning? Or are readers more famiiar with reading electronic texts going to get more from the poem than those who aren’t? What does this say about the accessibility of electronic literature? For experienced readers of electronic literature, “Entre Ville” might, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s words, become a place, whereas it might remain a space for those who are not able to access its full meaning. But we might argue that this is true for any text. Readers practiced at reading lengthy complex print texts like the classic Don Quixote, for example, are likely to get more out of the novel than readers who generally read less challenging texts like contemporary magazines, newspapers and best selling novels (rethink–also consider WC’s comment about the value judgments involved in assessing level of literacy )
In his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Tuan tells us that “space . . .” while place ” . . .” (find quotes that clearly distinguish). There is no question that we begin to experience “Saint Urbani” more completely when we explore the sections of the poem, some of which appear in the windows of the sketched builidng we assume is Carpenter’s apartment building. From one we can hear the “French man” who waits “until dinner time, / to aim his trumpet” at Carpenter’s apartment. While it isn’t always safe to assume a piece of writing is autobiographical, Carpenter tells us in her essay that this one is. She spent “15 years learning the vocabulary of the nieghbourhood.” If we go to the fourth window, top row on the right hand side of the notebook, we can listen to the French man’s song which accompanies the a video of a sheet blowing in a breeze. The title of this part of the poem is “Rust Sheet Improv.” The more we have retained from reading the central poem, the easier it is to make connections to other sections of the larger work, “Entre Ville.” But how do we know to move the cursor over the building, clicking on the windows and other images on the page? Presumable the more familiar we become with electronic literature, we will know how to explore the page in the same way we learned to click on hyperlinks in web pages to move from one window to the next.
But as with the reading of any kind of text, this does not come instinctively. We need to be taught to read this way (ref Nadel interview & Hayles).
Develop paragraph on Tuan
Before she moved to Montreal, the city was a space (ref Carpenter’s essay), but in her years of living there she has gained intimate knowledge of the people and places; thus it has become a place.
Conclusion: (my audience teachers, so I want to reiterate my argument that we should be teaching students to read electronic texts and to navigate these texts as we do any other kind of literature–that digital literacy, or in Nadel’s words, transliteracy, is essential).
In my first year composition course, we are participating in UC Berkeley’s campus-wide On the Same Page project, using a facsimile edition of the book Fiat Lux, photographs by Ansel Adams and text by Nancy Newhall. We’ll be taking photographs of the Cal campus, just as Adams did and thinking about our visions of and for UC Berkeley. Here’s the one I took on the first day of class August 23, 2012.