I have, for years, taught students who write poetry and stories and novels. I have also, for years, been in classes with students who write poetry and stories and novels, many of whom decry the need to spend any time learning about form, technique, or craft. Many of whom don’t even spend much time reading poetry, stories, and novels.
Since I now mostly work with beginning writers, this attitude is expected, if not welcomed. Their solid, steadfast worlds are opening up onto vast seas of cliches (often in the form of status updates on facebook and picture memes with inappropriate apostrophes), and since many of the cliches suddenly ring true, they are forced to examine them without irony or insight. They don’t know what’s already been written or how many times it’s seen print, and they don’t necessarily care right now.
They claim apolitical stances on everything from health care to student loan debt, and I can hardly blame them: it took my brother foisting Flannery O’Connor on me to coerce me into reconsidering my crazily stringent Catholic predilections. We had to have an actual conversation in which he forced me to choose pro-choice or pro-life and reasonably argue it so that I would not embarrass myself in front of college classmates at UT. I’d previously ensconced myself in an “apolitical” cocoon when confronted with overtly political arguments. So, I get it. It wasn’t until I got angry, really angry, and stumbled across George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” that I understood the relationship between my anger, my politics, and my writing:
“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” – George Orwell, “Why I Write”
However, this year in particular, students seem full of strange and impractical information that might well bear light on the present, but doesn’t. They are pregnant with ideas, yet reluctant to make definitive statements about how they have pulled together their assertions. It’s true that their lives are awash with information, but the fragmentation of seemingly ideological statements is maddening, especially when I am trying to teach them how to argue in academic papers. The fact that they “just know” some statistic about the number of wild boar shot on private property in Texas over the past year without remembering or caring HOW they know the statistic is both astounding and frustrating.
This, coupled with the all-too-pervasive “everything is relative” sentiment expressed both in discussion and written work, makes for interesting juxtaposition in terms of teaching self expression and academic rhetoric. When I ask, “is it okay that wild boars are being poached on private property?” they are loath to examine implications or historical context. I don’t necessarily think that it’s coming from an attitude that fence-sitting is distinctly easier. Everything is relative and subjective, everything comes from some unknown, all wise, source on the internet, everything is equal in terms of idea and expression. Boars are shot. They just are. Claims of open-mindedness abound. They have the information about boars, and that’s enough.
It brings to mind this short passage from Josh Cook’s Bookslut article:
“Furthermore, America’s particular brand of anti-elitism (sometimes productive, sometimes destructive) quite often comes to mean that nobody can tell anybody else whether an idea is good or not; leaving book reviewers and critics without much to say about idea-centered books. The nature of our critical culture focuses critique and review on techniques and away from ideas. Together, these critical forces congeal in a coherent and dominant aesthetic.”
Is this how beginning writers can claim that reading is unimportant? Or is this how writing turns a corner?