I recently had time to go through some old writing. I had the thought that a baseball book I’d started and didn’t finish might be resurrected.
What I found instead was my original reason for abandoning it. The scenario (a minor-league pitcher struggling to reach “The Bigs”) was fine, as was the description of characters and setting. But I wasn’t one who could move the action forward and develop a plot or characters.
I also found pages of my overwritten, unfathomable existential poetry and prose. I was in a graduate writing program then in which the academics held James Joyce and other “serious writers” in high esteem.
So I took the ball and ran with it, tackled by verbosity in the backfield.
Forty-plus years later, I’m embarrassed by all that traction-less, windy piffle. I’d give you examples, but it’s not why I’m writing.
What I found among the flotsam was one gem – a three-page syllabus and the only funny writing in the box.
Back then, I was paid to teach freshman composition. This quid pro quo involved the college paying me $2,750 a semester and waiving tuition. Not a bad deal, even with all the papers I had to grade. I was asked to “teach” freshman how to write, as if that were possible.
The syllabus for Sections 14 and 17 of English 1023 was typewritten and mimeographed, and should be a Smithsonian artifact or article in The Onion.
I showed it to my son-in-law, who shared some of the more over-the-top writing with my wife and daughter.
He encouraged me to write about it, devoting space to the topic headings – “Attendance,” “Conferences,” “Assignments,” “Plagiarism,” “Dog” etc.
I’ll explain “dog” later.
Under “Attendance,” I said the university didn’t require it so “The consequence is that I can’t penalize you for not coming, and in fact, if your assignments are fulfilled, you can conceivably receive an A without coming once.”
But after tossing out the bait, I explained there would be unannounced in-class assignments with consequences if they were missed. Talk about mixed messages.
Challenging and entertaining, often in the same sentence, I sermonized “that it is possible to learn something in class” – writing could be learned if not taught – and that “all of you have the potential to be decently articulate on paper, if not movingly expressive.”
Movingly expressive? In freshman comp?
Under “Conferences,” I promised students “personal attention,” “informality” and “free refreshments.” I hope it was Taco Bueno.
To convince them I was a good guy, I said I was open to working the “Assignments” (eight three-to-five-page papers) around tests in their other classes. All they had to do was say something.
It was advisable, I said, that their writing be based on “things that involve you the most deeply” rather than having everyone write about “My Favorite Sister,” “My Father’s Neckties: A Dilemma in Taste” or “What I Think About 3.5 Beer in My More Sober Moments.”
Writing about things close to them – and nothing was closer to a freshman than beer – would make the process more “absorbing and pleasurable.”
Writing wasn’t passive, I said, and while I might inspire them, “there was no chance you will be lectured into a good writer.” True dat.
There’d be “No tests, final, and no other external inducements” to develop what I said “amounts to artificial propping or willpower.” The semester would end with a three-week, independent work break — one in which they’d do “a full-rig, direly equipped research paper.”
I have no idea what “full-rig, direly equipped” meant and I can only guess what they thought. There was no Google then.
Under “Physical Requirements,” I wanted double-spaced typing with “reasonable margins all around. I will make nasty, chilling comments if you turn in papers with three-inch margins. We are not writing wedding invitations!”
Indeed, this was a shotgun marriage of unsuspecting students and a rookie teacher.
Grades on papers would be “accurate” and “responsible,” I promised, but could also be wielded as motivators. “I will attempt all devious means of having you like to write,” I warned, underlining for emphasis.
Largely unsupervised, I was free to say anything.
Under “Dog,” I explained that Puppy, my loyal companion, was “available for rental as a watchdog, party clown, confidant, model of natural beauty and loyalty.” She was also a mutt, I explained, which led me to conclude that “Universal pot luck always beats smug pedigree in the poker game of life.”
I defined “Plagiarism” as “Cheating, that is. Dirty stuff. Unfair play” and confided that I’d once paid someone to write a philosophy paper and deeply regretted it.
“I came from the famous Knopf family … of private investigators, confidence men, spies, assassins, psychiatrists and IRS investigators,” I said, and it was silly to cheat. “I have undercover men and informers who peer into dorm suites … inconspicuous and in sheer disguise.”
Today, they’d be “operatives” or “assets on the ground.”
I wasn’t done. “You have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool me,” I said, quoting my father. “I have poisoned three unfaithful wives.”
OK, so I exaggerated. It was only one.
But isn’t freshman composition about persuasion, descriptive language and rhetorical devices such as hyperbole? I was leading by example, and I can only guess if my students were following.
Write me at email@example.com. There will be no grades.