An Example of a “Process” Rhetorical Approach I Never Shared with My Students

How I looked forward to the day of the final exam!―although not simply because it meant the end of reading and commenting upon at numbing length those dreadful papers.  In a clever stroke, the UNM English department (and, I suspected, many other higher-education English departments across America) designed the exam and its method of evaluation in a way that I was certain would relax those teaching assistants who, due to lack of experience, likely needed some soothing justification for their unappetizing plans to flunk one or more of their students. 

The department fashioned three different topics for the exam―for example: “What did Ralph Waldo Emerson mean by ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .’”―one of which the student was free to choose.  Each exam was identified only by the student’s university identification number, and each was graded on a pass/fail basis by three teaching assistants, with the majority grade―or, in the case of complete success or failure, the across-the-board grade―determining the student’s fate.  A failing grade theoretically meant the student was required to repeat the course.  Ideally, such a blind “pass” or “fail” evaluation confirmed the assessment of the student’s regular instructor.  The failing student could challenge his or her evaluation with the English department, with the student’s instructor perhaps acting in the student’s defense.  

On a December afternoon, as the fall semester neared its end, in a spare room of the humanities building, I and about a half-dozen of my fellow assistants, brandishing pens, sat on the carpeted floor or at desks amid stacks of exam “blue books.”  The atmosphere was buoyant, often giddy, as we read exams and gaily entered our “P”’s and “F”’s and mercifully nothing more on the insides of the books’ back covers.  No holds were barred, no imagined feelings spared.  Occasionally a direct quote from an exam was tossed out by a grader for the group to . . . consider.  Some quotes amazed us with their insight, even their poetry.  More, however, were received with incredulity and merciless, chortling ridicule.  (To wit: “I question evolution.  How does a cell walking out of the ocean for the first time know its going to some day be a guys ear?”)  Because that was the point: It was finally our turn to blowhole. 

Several days later, I received the results of the evaluations of my students . . . and was rather amazed―and heartened―at how my standards, such as they had evolved, aligned with those of my fellow instructors. 

A final, traditional letter grade for each student who passed the final exam was assigned by the student’s personal instructor based upon the student’s performance throughout the semester.  Several of my students who had performed poorly during the fall, yet had managed to pass the final, put me in that twitchy “D” realm―twitchy because a “D” student was required to repeat the course as well.  However, after several beers, I issued each of those theoretical “D” students a “C” and hoped each was going to major in engineering.  In each of my two fall classes I awarded several “A”’s and about as many failures, with no students contesting my grades. 

Nonetheless, throughout the semester, I had an increasingly nagging feeling that I, my fellow assistants, and even the English Department were lowering the bars for each of the passing grades.  That is, grade-inflating.  However, a few beers with said assistants at a popular bar on Central Avenue directly opposite the campus would make this feeling go away, providing I didn’t spot a student I was preparing to flunk imbibing there―perhaps, like me, to drown a concern―as well.

I went on to teach another semester.  Again, despite the frustration, I enjoyed teaching, including the camaraderie with my fellow assistants, many of whom were pursuing their doctorates.  Yes, they were busy cranking out those “scholarly” papers I so derided.  Yet I respected their hard work, their love of literature, the pleasures they took in reading and writing, and their eloquence and wit on any number of topics literary or mundane.  I was as proud of being a teacher as I was of being a computer programmer.


Until Drops of Blood Form on Your Forehead

Teaching was indeed often “fun,” yet not without its frustrations.  I suspected my students dreaded reading Only Yesterday only slightly more than I.  I had never heard of Frederick Lewis Allen.  Unless it addressed, however tangentially, Hemingway’s experience as a meteoric literary figure in Paris, twenties American history, formal or “informal,” rarely interested me.  In high school and boarding school, I struggled through everybody’s twenties classic, The Great Gatsby.  Still, Allen’s writing, if often dry, was accessible; his subject matter pulled the student, if only for a little while, out of the drivel of Friends and Seinfeld and the mindless tumescence of “Me So Horny” 2 Live Crew; and the book’s various rhetorical techniques offered topics for discussion and writing.  Nonetheless, my “lectures” on the book were often met with bewilderment and silence. 

The second half of the course was somewhat enlivened with the next text: a collection of essays.  Its authors spanned the ages, from Swift and his famous “A Modest Proposal” (which, to my private embarrassment, I had no recollection of ever reading) to Stephen King and his explanation for our fascination with horror.  The essays, which could be read in a sitting even by the most easily-distracted youth, illustrated basic non-fiction rhetorical techniques: description, narration, compare and contrast, evaluation, process, argumentation, etc.  Many of the essays were interesting; one, Jessica Mitford’s discussion of embalming, was morbidly fascinating.  Yet generating classroom discussion of even contemporary matters was difficult.  Was I that unprepared, frightened, lacking in confidence as a college freshman?  Probably.  In any event, I enjoyed the discussions, lopsided though they often were.

What I quickly came to dread, however, was reading, commenting on, correcting, and grading the students’ papers―six per student, seven hundred to one thousand words per paper.  In the words of the great Thomas Wolfe, briefly a college instructor himself, the “huge damnation of that pile of unmarked themes . . .”  The grammatical ruin and ideational impoverishment of eighty percent of the papers throughout the semester staggered me.  Every ten days or so I’d face another mountain of tenses in disagreement; sentences incomplete; capital letters disregarded; periods missing; ideas tangled and incomprehensible; correction fluid applied with all the delicacy of a bricklayer; margins, lines, and paragraphs ill-formatted, even with papers obviously “word-processed.”  Slack-jawed, staring into space, I wondered, among other things:  Have any of these kids ever read a book cover to cover?  And: How many hours of MTV have contributed to this rhetorical wreckage?  And: Which concerns “Destini”―a student of mine rarely modest in matters of midriff―more: her ability to write or the visibility of that lightning bolt tattooed on the base of her spine?[1]  

[1] Speaking of which, the older I get, the more I am of the opinion that the masters distinguish themselves with education; the rest, with tattoos.  


And You Feed Them for a Lifetime

It wasn’t until my third year at UNM that I realized a graduate student could get some potentially worthwhile experience and earn money in the process by becoming a university teaching assistant instructing freshman composition.  The assistant received a modest stipend, was provided a shared office in the Humanities building, and was required to take several classes in composition theory while teaching. 

On the one hand, the bookish introvert I fancied myself to be recoiled at this possibility.  I simply couldn’t imagine myself in a blazer, dress shirt, bolo tie, khakis, and penny loafers standing―or, perhaps, sitting with an I’m-on-your-side casualness on the edge of an imposing desk―before thirty pimply eighteen-year-olds variously bright-eyed, asleep, anxious, and bored, pontificating on rhetorical approaches, syntax, theses, logic, and diction.  Then again, the eagle hadn’t flown for me in three years and I was beginning to feel guilty about it.  Furthermore, after graduation, a part- or full-time job teaching English at one or more of the various community colleges within a commute from my home in Albuquerque did strike me as a respectable way to make extra income while reaping royalties from my “underground bestsellers” and generally establishing my œuvre.  Of course, I invited Linda to weigh in on the idea of husband-as-professor.  I never doubted that she minded being, in Rilke’s words, a “guardian of my solitude.”  Still, a natural extrovert, she felt that teaching, in addition to bringing in some money, would expose me to new people and new experiences and thus do my craft and sullen art some good.  So I applied for the assistantship, and was accepted. 

Standing outside Mitchell Hall on a late-summer morning, professorially decked out, I clutched my Samsonite attaché case.  It was stuffed with thirty copies of my course syllabus and the text, assigned by the rhetoric department, for the first half of the course: Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen.  I felt reasonably confident as I prepared to teach my first class.  I strode into the building, made a left turn down the first-floor hallway to my classroom, realized what I was about to do . . . and commenced to come apart.  My hands shook and my face flushed.  Surprised, astonished, terrified by the multiplying cracks and splinters in my composure, I paused in the hallway, furiously attempting to understand what was happening and pull myself together.  A minute later, I entered the classroom, breathing shallowly, feeling as if I were staggering, aware of but avoiding the thirty pairs of limpid eyes on me. 

After placing the Samsonite on the massive metal desk at the head of the classroom, I picked up a stick of chalk and prayed my trembling hand would legibly write “Mr. Davis” on the blackboard.  After I managed my name, I recalled the mantra―offered by Mike, my thesis advisor who also happened to be in charge of the freshman composition program―that was supposed to soothe the nerves of the novice teaching assistant: “You know more than they do.”  When I first heard it, the obviousness of it seemed to render it useless.  But, by heaven, it worked, and I relaxed somewhat as I scribbled my office location and hours. 

Throughout the fifty class minutes, as I went over every line of my syllabus with the students, I variously stood, paced easily a few feet to the left and right, and, yes, even sat on the edge of my desk like a lovable, venerated coach delivering a pep talk.  Finally, I issued my first writing assignment: “Four hundred to five hundred words telling me about the last book you read.”  I wanted to “get a sense of your skill levels,” I explained to my students. With this, a young man in the back raised his hand and tentatively asked, “Can I write about a biology book?”  Obviously a budding science or engineering major, I thought. In any event, almost certain he was referring to a textbook assigned by his high school, I was tempted to somewhat jokingly and with smug erudition reply, “Yes, if it’s On the Origin of the Species.”  Then, realizing this might be met with thirty baffled expressions, I instead offered to the young man: “How about a book from your high school English class?”  He thought for a moment, then smiled and nodded, which I regarded as promising.  By the end of class, I was thoroughly relaxed, thinking: They respect me, perhaps even fear me.  Wow.  This might be fun.  And I then proceeded a door or two down the hall to meet my one additional class. 


My Thesis – Part 2

The next individual who agreed to be profiled was my “plateau” resident.  Jim was a thirty-six-year-old Native American, a member of and resident at Zuni Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico.  The first in his family to attend college, he was degreed in agriculture from New Mexico State University.  Employed by the pueblo, his job was primarily the restoration of Zuni lands.  When I interviewed him, his focus was erosion caused by years of unfettered timber harvesting, firewood collection, and road-building on the reservation.  I engaged him for several days over the span of seven months in his office, in his truck while we toured his reservation, and while walking the backcountry of the reservation.  Among other things, I learned about the Zuni tradition of the naming of landforms no matter how inconsequential they may seem to a non-Native; the construction of small sandstone “check dams” to retard erosion in arroyos; the development of “seed banks” for corn, the mainstay of the Zuni diet; and traditional wood verses carbon-composite bows for bow-and-arrows.  Jim was soft-spoken, respectful of other cultures―including those of the non-Native―and always cordial.  He had traveled broadly in the world.  His passion was mountains and their spiritual significance.  And he liked the music of James Brown.  I’ve never forgotten his observation, “In a hundred years the reservation will still be a safe place, a place we may need to protect even more than we do now. . .  We’ve been here thousands of years, and if the rest of the world’s societies fall apart, we’ll still be here.”  I believed this then, and I really believe this now, in the time of Covid-19.

Jim struck me as an unusually quiet man.  I’m not sure if his silence was simply his personality, or caution about revealing too much to a non-Zuni.  Today, I’m not at all sure I would attempt a profile of any Native American.  Before weighing a profile of Jim, I wish I had read more carefully Erna Fergusson’s 1940 book Our Southwest, for in it she observes, “As a rule the Pueblos are polite to visitors and ready to do business.  But they deal with [non-Native Americans] only at the periphery of their real life.”  More recently, I think Robert Gish echoed this sentiment when, in his 1996 book Beautiful Swift Fox, about late-20th-century New Mexico and Fergusson’s life and literary contributions, he observed: “Today, American Indians speak forcefully against cultural appropriation, and rightly talk much for themselves, and eschew―indeed protest―‘outside’ interpreters, whatever their motive.”  And discussing the 2017 movie Wind River, about a modern-day murder on the Native American reservation of the same name, Kevin Noble Maillard, a part-Seminole, part African-American writing in the New York Times, stated, “Marriage, affinity or even lifelong residency may change the white man, but he will always be a foreigner in Indian Country.”  I’m now of the opinion that a non-Native―Charles Lummis and Tony Hillerman, perhaps, being the exceptions―cannot be trusted to correctly interpret a Native American perspective on anything but the most superficial of observations.

Today, I admit it:  With Jim, I was hoping for more Dances with Wolves―that is, what a white man might define as “Native American mysticism,” even a rebuke of the modern white man’s ways―and less check dams and seed banks.  That’s how little I knew about Native Americans then―and now.  Still, I’ll always be grateful for my experience with Jim.  My profile of him resulted in my first piece published in one of my much-ridiculed “scholarly journals.”