Thursday, October 1, 2015

Cold Dark Deep and Absolutely Clear (and something to do with writing conclusions)

This week has been full of reading and writing.  At the beginning of the week I spent over 16 hours sitting with each and every one of my students individually. (I also cursed the Google Doc Add-On "Choice Eliminator" many, many times. I used it to schedule these appointments, and the damn thing triple-booked some appointments). I was also doing lots of my own writing this week, particularly on one short story.
I've also been studying 20th century poetry using a free Udemy Course by GWU professor, Margaret Soltan, "Poetry: What it is, and How to Understand It". It's a great course, and I love how Soltan sometimes breaks into song, but I was particularly struck by her lecture on Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" because it reminded me of my students' struggle with understanding their own reading and writing identity and, in particular, their struggle with coming to a conclusion.
I read many, many papers this week and it brought back memories of my old tutoring days. This meeting time is part of the "Writing Process" they are using this semester. I think this step is one of the most valuable for many reasons. I got to re-read their stories, see their faces and discuss their writing with them. I got to know who is really serious about their work and who is utterly lost. I was able to congratulate and cheer those students on, in person, and re-establish the tone for our writing relationship. And to those who need a lot of help, I was able to encourage them to just keep going. I wanted to have a real "discussion" about their essays, and not just dictate to them what they should do, so I tried asking open-ended questions about their writing: What did you enjoy about this paper? What was most difficult? What did you learn by reading other's writing? They were not used to this, but most were eager to discuss, and I could sense their frustration when our time was up.
The biggest problem my students were having was writing the conclusion and resorting to the cookie-cutter methods of "summary" or "restate your thesis". So, when we got back to class, I shared my notes on writing conclusions
Basically, a reflective conclusion should answer the famous, "So What?" question, but even though they already knew that from our previous classes together, they weren't clear about how to go about it. Their attempts to show relevance were relying on obvious statements and, what we call, "phony-baloney" ideas (which are both "Conclusion Killers" that are in the notes).So, I shared 4 types of conclusions that show relevance with examples I had quickly typed up.
After the lecture, they worked on their conclusions, and many students admitted they were lying in their closing statements. They were just desperate to get something down, but once they put their work through the reflective test, they made the writing choice to eliminate the insincere and attempt to reflect more. This was frustrating for them until I reminded them that quality writing in a personal essay is utterly sincere about being confused. Since they are writing about their own personal literacy, I reminded them that it is okay if they just admit, in the conclusion, how they are still thinking through their own reading and writing identities. One student, after hearing this, created a marvelous conclusion about what she was feeling at that moment while writing the conclusion, so all the frustration and uncertainty was coming through beautifully, supporting her claim that she is a fearful writer. It was both "deep and absolutely clear" (Bishop).
Using the sea as a metaphor for the vast knowledge humans are never fully able to grasp, the speaker in "At the Fishhouses" ponders on  "the limits of what we can know, given the brevity of our lives and the weakness of our minds" and how "we are not in a position to give clear meaning to [life's] meaning" (Soltan). Instead, the conclusion of the poem is that "consciousness is all I have" (Soltan). Soltan emphasizes how the arrestation is the significance, and not necessarily the meaning: "By arresting the world, the poet accelerates consciousness of the world. It's a two-step dance. Make it stop...and then, really look at it, and let your consciousness run."
On the other hand, an essay's conclusion implies knowledge, sometimes thorough or even complete knowledge. But what if my students haven't reached that conclusion? What if this is the first time they were asked to evaluate and consider their own literacy. They are only at the start of the journey. If the place they are at now is the moment of consideration of their own literacy (the moment of arrestation), then that is meaningful in itself.
I encouraged them to be honest about that-- they don't know yet. The admission of ignorance about oneself is "cold dark deep and absolutely clear" because it should lead to a curiosity that demands reflection.
I'm excited about some of the revisions I am reading. They are "accepting and calm" (Soltan) of the realization that there are parts of the writer that have remained un-examined, so now the journey can begin.
I understand, as an instructor in the humanities, that students, as humans, are perhaps not able to endure full knowledge on any subject, even themselves, all at once. That kind of "immersion" would be "bitter," "briny" and "burn[ing]" (Bishop).
Instead, I can see my students coming to "small iridescents", as human "knowledge is a matter of small...increments of understanding...small epiphanies... flashes of knowledge" (Soltan).

Works Cited
Bishop, Elizabeth. "At the Fishhouses." Web.
Soltan, Margaret."'At the Fishhouses,' Elizabeth Bishop". Poetry: What it Is, and How to Understand It. Web.

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