Hello Outsiders. Yesterday we explored the definition of “discipline,” and I posed the following question:
As English Majors and Minors, teachers and students, and general lovers of the written word–can we advance in our discipline without discipline? How much of our work within the discipline will involve “obeying” and “rules”? As a teacher or a student–how much do we enforce one to support the other?
We all love to read and write, for sure–but it can’t be all fun, can it? In posting midterm grades today, I was reminded of the cycles and seasons of the academic life. I love college so much, I never left–but for some reason I find myself surprised at various times each semester by the sheer volume of reading and writing we all choose to take up as practitioners of this discipline (as teachers, students and life-long learners). At times like this, our lives certainly seem governed by a lot of “rules” we have to “obey.” Are we crazy?
My wife thinks so. She teaches High School English–and there the pressure is even more intense. This past Friday found her grading essays when she got done with school, much of the day on Saturday and Sunday, then meeting with a colleague at 7pm on Sunday evening to go over grades to be shared with students the following day. When she was able to join her children and husband for a brief respite and linger over dinner (pizza is a sure-fired way to call her forth from the grading den), we barely recognized the stranger in our midst. She had bloodshot eyes and “grading elbow.”
Now that’s crazy. Yet we have more English Education Majors in our program than ever. What gives?
We love words. What else can be the explanation? (Well, to be fair, we may not “love” the words in that particular passage of the seventeenth essay we have graded that evening, the one with all the comma errors, but we know that, eventually, we will arrive at a passage that blows us away and takes our heads clean off, as Emily would say). Those of us working within this discipline take on faith that language will be our savior, at some point–every week, we will be vindicated in our chosen path. My students suffering through those long passages of Emerson will emerge from the Concord woods, transparent eyeballs ablaze, arduous midterm exam conquered, and encounter a black bird sitting in their study, ready to creep them out and reaffirm their belief that, somehow, literature is fun!
Our discipline requires of us a lot of hard work. Any professional career or course of study will, obviously–but are English majors special gluttons for punishment? As I chat with students this week of midterms, I’m reminded of just how much they have on their plates–all the writing projects and all the pages to read. I remember being overwhelmed many times throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, wondering just how in the hell I was going to digest all of that material! Let alone savor it, meditate on it–engage is slow reading, as Deane Tucker wisely advised a few blogs ago. How could I possibly get through it all. Sometimes (gasp), I couldn’t! I’d have to prioritize or “triage” which assignments across my courses demanded my attention first and foremost (hint to my students, it is always American Lit). When I was unable to complete a reading assignment, I would feel intense anxiety–not that the professor would call on me, or that I would screw up a quiz or exam–but that I was being left out of that shared reading experience of the class. I would sometimes get upset when the professor would CUT a reading from the schedule. How masochistic is that? I somehow felt, deeply, that motto you see emblazoned on bags from Barnes and Noble: “so many books, so little time.” But was it worth all the the 3am essays, the cups of joe, the frantic call of the inkjet minutes before class? Who would choose this?
And so I understand the near revolt of my students this morning who complained that we had set aside just ONE day for Edgar Allan Poe. (Trying to lure me into the catacombs for a nice draught of wine was a bit over the top, though). We are all addicted to reading–though we might not all pick the same poison. (For those of you going on to teach, when you get your own classrooms–you can assign as much Poe as you want. For now, let’s turn our pages to Walden…)
In short, we have chosen a discipline that does require, at times, a certain devil’s bargain. In order to get “paid” in good grades, diplomas and, eventually, salaries, we agree to live within a world of self-discipline. We will read a lot–and not always for pleasure. We will write a great deal–often, not for the fun of it. We will internalize the rules of acceptable usage and, when needed, obey them. We will prop open our eyelids and push through to the end of the chapter. We will tap tap on our keyboards until we reach that word count. We will assess the written work of others, many who won’t share our perverse love of language. We do this because we know no other way to fill our lives with what we love.
In this blog space a year or so ago, I penned a promotion for our program that sought to appeal to all you hopeless reading and writing addicts out there. WORK WITH WORDS became our mantra. It has that nice double-meaning that all English majors can appreciate: find a profession where reading and writing are integral, and where you get to literally “work” with language day in and day out. A colleague recently shared a link to a website that endorses this theme, helping us to imagine why we might want to study within the arts and humanities, and seek out those attendant careers. Here is a link to the website:
You can make more money elsewhere, perhaps. You might have more free time to watch Big Bang Theory, or surf the internet. But at the end of the day, will your brain thank you? Will you get outside yourself? Face it–you need words, and they need you. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can turn the page…