Discussions at a Textbook Fair

Entering the community room at the college where you work is somewhat disconcerting.  The haunting “Promenade” theme from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition keeps playing through your head; it must have been on the radio driving up here.  You’re right on time, but there are more vendors — each busily setting cases and cases of books onto their tables, arranging and rearranging their wares, stepping back to admire their handiwork — than there are teachers.  And the number of books!  How are you ever supposed to differentiate them, let alone pick one for your Freshman Comp classes?  Your Department Chair brusquely says “hello” and hands you a ballot.  Oh, that’s how you’re supposed to pick one.

Another teacher sidles up, cup of coffee in hand.  You exchange pleasantries.  “Do you ever have trouble getting students to read the text?” she asks.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say I have trouble,” you reply.  “I have simply had no success whatsoever in getting them to read the text.”

“Me neither!  What do you think we can do?”

“I don’t know,” you say.  “I’m completely stymied.  Last semester I tried giving a quiz on the reading at the beginning of each class, but that failed miserably and I’m not doing it again this semester.  This time I’m just requiring a page of writing related to the reading.  Like an admission pass to class.  But I’m still getting minimal reading out of them.  You can tell.”

“That’s for sure.”

“But would you want to read this crap?” you ask, pointing at a stack of the Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing on the first table.

“Well, I sure read it when I took the class!”

“Yeah?” you reply, eyebrow cocked inquisitively.  “Well, I wouldn’t.  If they didn’t pay me, I sure wouldn’t read it now.”  She stares as though you’ve just committed blasphemy, sips her coffee, walks away.  The “Promenade” theme reasserts itself in your mind as you absentmindedly pick up a textbook, The Longwood Guide to Writing.

“Looking for a Freshman Comp book?”

You turn away from the table and into a pair of coffee-colored eyes, deep set behind gold reading glasses just starting to slide down a noble nose, setting off her Club Med tan and bleached blonde hair.  “Yeah, I guess so,” you say.

“Well, The Longwood Guide is excellent.  What do you use now?”

“The Allyn & Bacon.

“That’s also one of our best.  What are you looking for in a textbook?”

“Uh, I really don’t know.  Something my students will read.”

“Ha-ha!  You’d better be careful with that,” she says, picking up and opening a Longwood Guide to the inside front cover where there’s a list of quotes under the heading, Writers on Writing.  “Look at what Annie Dillard has to say on that: ‘The writer is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.’”

“Whoa,” you respond.  “What if he reads nothing at all?”

“You are funny.  You are so funny!  I’m Ariel Stottle, with Longman.  And you are?”

She hurriedly writes your name in her daytimer, then turns back to the text in your hands.  “This book has great readings — Lorna Dee Cervantes,” she says, running her fingers over the Table of Contents, continuing breathlessly, “Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Mark Twain, Ellen Goodman — but that’s not what makes this book so great.

“It’s totally loaded with invention.  Just look at the first chapter: ‘Invention: Finding Something to Say.’  It’s got all kinds of stuff: from Finding Topics, with all kinds of questions to get your students started, to Exploring Topics (brainstorming, freewriting, clustering) and Asking Questions — this book actually acquaints your students with Stasis Theory without burdening them with all the terminology — questions of association, questions of opposition, questions of sequence, questions of consequence, and their real-life application to a fictitious smelting company called The Fuzzwort Refining Company.

“And, as I’m sure you well know, there’s more to an argument than logical reasoning: there’s Emotional Appeal, right here on page 500, followed by Ethical Persuasion, though I would have turned them around myself, but even that’s not what makes this book really great.

“What makes this book really great is their emphasis on the Rhetorical Triangle: writer, subject, and reader.  Look at ‘Part II.’”  You flip back to the beginning, find the Table of Contents page with Part II — Writing Occasions written in gold ink.  “See how it’s got all these different Writing Occasions, all the different types of essays your students will have to write — Personal Essays, Information Essays, Essays About and From Literature, Evaluation Essays, Position Essays, Persuasion Essays, Problem/Solution Essays — it’s got them all, every type of essay your students will ever need.  And in each chapter they talk about the Rhetorical Triangle for that type of essay: who is the reader? what topics are appropriate? how does that type of writer need to present herself?”

“Wow,” you hear yourself saying involuntarily.  “Is it better than Allyn & Bacon?

“Oh, they’re both really good.  And I sell both of them.  Just let me know which one you want.”  She hands her business card to you while looking over your shoulder and deftly steps around you, hand extended to the next customer.

You tuck The Longwood Guide under your arm and walk away, softly humming a haunting Slavic melody.  It’s hard to see how this book will be any more interesting to your students than the one you’ve been using.  But the nice thing about these Guides is their very copiousness — they’ve got everything from readings to writing assignments, exercises to computer tutorials, even sections on grammar and mechanics, revision and manuscript format.  From a teacher’s perspective, they’ve got everything you need to teach a Freshman Comp class.  The problem is they don’t have that one ingredient an 18-year-old needs to escape the onslaught of hormones and ensuing ennui: some semblance of relevance.  Really, you ask, staring vacantly at the oil painting on the glossy book’s front cover — fishing boats docked in some New England harbor, soothing blues and earth tones — could anything possibly be less relevant?

“May I help you?” a thunderous voice booms from behind the next table.

“Oh, just looking, thanks.”

“My name is August Stein,” the voice booms even more loudly, and you’re wondering if he got that banded collar shirt at the Salvation Army since you haven’t seen one in at least five years.  Not to mention the black jacket and pants.  Somehow they fit his appearance though: stiff and austere.  You try not to stare at the blood vessels nearly bursting in his cheeks; look instead at the point where hoary crewcut meets crimson neck.

“You can use that guide until Judgment Day if you want, but true eloquence is to be had primarily through reading eloquent works — not through memorizing a few rules of eloquence.  Nobody, eloquent or not, can think about the rules of eloquence while engaged in elocution — unless, of course, the rules of eloquence are themselves the topic of elocution — yet the rules of eloquence are fully exemplified in the writings of the eloquent.  Did you learn to talk by learning the rules of grammar?  Of course not!  You learned by imitating those around you.  And your students would be better educated by reading great writers than they will by plowing through that aberration you hold there.”  This he says while pointing a crooked finger at the Longwood tucked under your arm.

“Furthermore,” he thunders.  “Furthermore, your students will not reap one grain of wisdom from such as that — unless, that is, they accidentally read one of the essays buried deep within its 800 pages.  Not likely, I think.  No, if a man wants wisdom, let him seek it among the great works of mankind, not from some professor of rhetoric.”  This last he says with more than a hint of sneer in his voice.  He leans forward on his table; you smell pipe tobacco on his frock, notice the pipe in his pocket since you cannot look him in the eyes.

“Listen closely.  Do your students understand rhetoric?”

You hesitate, hoping it’s a rhetorical question.  He just keeps staring at you, breathing heavily, so you shake your head — no.  He continues in low tones.

“If you want to teach your students you must understand that you have not yet said what it is you wanted to say.  If you had said it, they would understand, but they don’t understand, do they?  No, they don’t.  That’s because, my friend, you have not said it!”  This last is said a bit louder than you would have liked, but you’re beginning to understand.

He pulls a greasy, tattered paperback from his pipe pocket, thumbs the pages rapidly to the one that’s falling out, near the end.  The book is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

“Listen to Marlow,” he says before reading:  “‘This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man.  He had something to say.  He said it.’  Now listen carefully to me.  Listen to Conrad!  He had something to say.  He said it.  Do you understand?”

You nod, quite involuntarily.

“There now,” he says, reverting to low tones once more.  “I’d like to show you some readers I think you might find interesting.”  He picks up a couple of books from one stack on his table, grabs another book from a second stack.

“These are both very good readers, excellent sources of eloquence, but their approaches are very, very different,” he says, opening the thicker book, called Mind Readings: An Anthology for Writers, to its Table of Contents.  “This first one is incredible,” he says.  “Works by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Richard Leakey, even Doug Hofstadter.”  Your ears prick up; Gődel, Escher, Bach is one of your very favorite books.  You follow his crooked finger down the page: it’s got Peter Singer on equality for animals; it’s got William Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemonic.”  Heck, this is a book you’d like to read yourself.

“Now listen to me,” he says softly, gently interrupting your reverie.  “As a teacher, you know as well as I do that you must vary your delivery between the three levels of style: subdued, moderate, and grand.  And the higher the pitch, the shorter the time you can expect your students to pay attention.  Mind Readings is set at a lofty pitch; it may be hard for you to maintain enthusiasm.  That is why we offer another reader that may be better suited to a semester-long Freshman Comp class.”  He shows you the other two books in his hand — the reader itself, and its accompanying instructor guide.

“This one is called Mirror on America: Short Essays and Images from Popular Culture.  Your students will love it.  It begins with sections on involved reading and the writing process, but then its 70 essays explore gender identity, cultural identity, fashion trends, the marketing of American culture, television and movies, music, sports, American places from Disney to McDonald’s, and virtual reality.  Open it to page 86.  Go on — open the book.  You read that essay while I confer with my colleague here.”

Of course you open the book — you really have no choice — and begin to read.  The essay is prefaced with the question “Have you ever been tempted to completely remake yourself?” and proceeds with a brief abstract and a bio of the author, an Asian American woman.  There is a box called Thinking Ahead, which sets up the reader’s mind set, and another called Increasing Vocabulary, which provides a list of words that may be unfamiliar to a college freshman — words like reverie — and where they may be found in the story.  You read the essay, a touching tale of coming to grips with one’s own cultural differences.  You want to laugh in the beginning.  You want to cry in the middle.  You’re cheering at the end.  It’s followed by sections on Exercising Vocabulary, Probing Content, Considering Craft, and Responding to the Writer.  Each of these sections contains thought-provoking questions that require a close reading of the essay.  It’s easy to see how you could incorporate this text into your own classroom.

“Well?” a low, soft voice intones.

“I like it a lot,” you say, “but it doesn’t have any grammar or mechanics, no MLA format section.”

“Peter!” he roars, gesturing at a little man in thick horn-rimmed glasses and a blue pinstripe suit talking to another teacher in the middle of the room.  “Peter, come here!” he booms, and walks away, pointing back at you with a crooked thumb.  You watch with some trepidation as Peter excuses himself, walks over to you, smiles, and holds out his hand to shake.  You smile back, shrug, and hold up the pile of books in your hands as an excuse not to take his hand, which he then wipes on his pants.

“Well, hello!  Good to meet you!  I’m Pete Oramas.  What’s your name?”  You give him your name and email address, which he types into his Palm Pilot.  You mentally bet yourself there’s an email from him waiting for you at school on Monday.

“What can I do for you?” he asks.

“Well, I don’t really know.  I was just talking to August when . . .”

“Ahh,” he says, “let me guess:  You believe there should be more emphasis on rhetoric.”

“Well, not . . .”

“I know, I know.  My friend, Augie, has nearly convinced you to denounce the guides, eschew the reference books, and require nothing but readers for your students.  Let me tell you something I learned a long time ago: ‘Each man should practice the art which he knows,’  And if there’s one thing I know, it’s rhetoric.”

You take a step back, not so much to reestablish your comfort zone, but more especially to get a little further downwind of this man’s heinous coffee breath.

“I have only one point to make,” he continues, “and that is that Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian — even Augustine — they all got it all wrong.  They confused logic with style and delivery, and what composition students need these days is a good kick in the pants with regards to style and delivery.  They get logic up the wazoo; they get it in every class outside of the English Department, but what they won’t get anywhere else is some guidance in style and delivery.  And don’t even let me hear any talk about ‘a good man speaking well!’  Speaking well is speaking well, and speaking well is speaking correctly.

“Now you appear to be a practical person, concerned about the well being of your students.  You want them to get a good education in the most efficient manner possible.  Forget everything you’ve been told before; there are only two parts to rhetoric: style and delivery.  And there is only one order in which you can teach your students anything: first, grammar, because it can be understood on its own; then rhetoric — by which I mean style and delivery — because it must be understood before your students can tackle any other subjects.”

“Now most of these books,” he continues, waving a fist at the other tables in the room, “most of these books try to be all things to all teachers, as if rhetoric were some kind of science applicable to all subjects.  Furthermore, they rely wholly on these ancient rhetoricians — Aristotle and all his cronies — when they should be coming up with new ways to make the simple art of speaking correctly clearer to your students.

“Take the art of arrangement, for example.  Most of the guides and, for heaven’s sake, all of the readers you see here would lead you to the conclusion that there is no fixed art of arrangement.  Nothing could be further from the truth!   Everything can be — must be! — treated with order and reason: thesis, support, conclusion.  There are simply no two ways about it.  Now, I want you to check out this reference book we offer, The Bedford Handbook.  It’s the industry standard, and you would do well to require it of every student who crosses your threshold.  Good God, why should there be so much confusion, when the whole matter is so clear and easy?”  He plops a copy onto the stack of books in your hands and walks away, smiling, reaching for the hand of another teacher.

You find a seat in the back of the room, where there are no more salespeople, so you can take a closer look at The Bedford Handbook.  “User-friendly” is the first word that comes to mind, but you hate that word.  The inside front cover has a Brief Menu that shows the philosophy of the book quite clearly.  It begins with “The Writing Process” as does every other book in the composition universe, but then it goes into “Document Design,” “Clear Sentences,” and “Word Choice.”  It has a chapter on “Grammatical Sentences,” though how that chapter differs from the one on “Clear Sentences” is not readily apparent, followed by a chapter on “ESL Trouble Spots,” then “Mechanics” and “Punctuation.”  You decide to see how the Handbook addresses comma usage, and discover that The comma was invented to help readers.  Hmmm.  You silently wish they’d invented something to help writers instead.  But the book presents its material in short, pithy statements that students should be able to remember.  It’s got good examples, and exercises to pound each lesson in.  It’s difficult to imagine students sitting down and actually reading this book, but it is extremely easy to use as a reference tool.  It’s got sections on various styles: MLA, APA, and Chicago, as well as a “Glossary of Usage” with many of the commonly misused words that your students have so much trouble with: affect and effect, its and it’s, than and then.  It’s just the type of reference book you’d like to have on your own desk.

You sit there, a pile of books in your lap, ready to mark your ballot, humming quietly the final “Promenade” from Pictures at an Exhibition.  Each of the books — the guide, the readers, the reference book — have much to say for them, but they each lack something as well.

Looking at The Bedford Handbook you can see how it offers a convenient way to approach difficulties encountered during the writing process, but it offers no assistance to the teacher and your students will find it about as interesting as a brick.  You place it on the floor and pick up the two readers, one in each hand.  They both offer exciting essays — some are even relevant to your students — but little guidance in the way of assignments or course planning.  You set them aside and stare once more at the cover of the Longwood Guide.  It offers teachers a complete package — a composition course in a box — but you know your students will find it deadly dull, and simply will not read it.

You would like to have the best of all worlds and require all of them in your Freshman Comp courses, but that would be unreasonably expensive and there’s no way you could fully utilize all of them in only one semester.  Maybe there’s some combination, though, that would work in your classroom.

Guide, readers, or reference.

How will you cast your vote?

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