Three lessons on reading Geoffrey Sirc’s “Box-Logic” for the 4th or 5th time in preparation for a graduate seminar in Composition Theory.
I attended the local Times Talk lunch on Wednesday, and I appreciated the salad of iceburg lettuce and sliced chicken with oil and vinegar dressing over spaghetti, but I discovered, when I asked the students attending the lunch about their reading habits, something less appetizing. I asked them, when it comes to news, do they pick up a paper and read what they find interesting or do they, maybe, go to google and search on a topic that interests them, like eurozone, f’rinstance, and read around what they find there? I guess I could have predicted the answer of mass comm students and student senators at a Mass Comm department and NY Times sponsored lunch about reading the NY Times: We read the paper. If you read blogs (I didn’t mention blogs, just “read around,”) you have to figure out if the source is credible. We don’t have the time to do that. What’s the eurozone? How are we supposed to know what’s important? The NY Times rep wasn’t helpful, remarking that a story in the Huffington Post was “a rumor,” while The NY Times wouldn’t report it until it was “news.” These students, it seems, like their news pre-packaged and branded to guarantee quality. The newspaper spoon in the Naked Lunch. The market share.
Then, today, I’m reading Sirc, “Box-Logic” (pdf), and I stop at this:
I really don’t think it’s up to me to teach students how to process that ‘serious writing […] the long and complicated texts’ (B and P) of the academy; if certain disciplines feel the need to use those texts, they are certainly free to teach students their intricacies themselves. 143.
Which got me thinking about that lunch again in this way:
A professor from the psych department who attended the Times Talk made it clear she did want to teach students how to process that serious writing when she commented to the group at large that she taught her students how to distinguish between a news story and an academic journal article. Why? Well, she said that her students have difficulty telling a news story from an advertisement from an academic journal article. That sounds like hyperbole, but given the reading habits the students mentioned … well, when you eat from the newspaper spoon, you don’t need to make distinctions. If her students have difficulty reading a psychology journal article, that’s her lookout, not mine, and it sounds like she has it all well in hand.
But doesn’t that make me part of the problem? Shouldn’t I, as a professor of composition, teach students how to distinguish between a news article and an article in a psych journal? Isn’t that my role in the academy?
Well, no. I needn’t teach the distinction. That is the psych department’s job. I would argue, in fact, that to make the distinction meaningful to the students it is meant for, the distinction has to be taught in the psych department.
In fact, given the reading habits of those students above, it’s clear that Sirc’s box-logic pedagogy does address the concerns of the psychology professor – and more fundamentally than simply discussing differences between two genres.
And suddenly I’m not part of the problem anymore. I may not be the solution, but I’m not part of the problem. I feel better now. I feel good. I feel better than James Brown.
Lesson Two: Vocabulary for this Chapter
Cut them out. Paste them on cards. Collect them all.
– a convolute – box logic – hip hop – rap – Fluxus – engagement – paratactic assemblage – association – implication – poetic concretism – expressionism – passion – constellated – constellation – trace-capturing – pulsion – academic curator – daybook – Abercrombie & Fitch lives – aggregate – juxtaposition – annotate – re-mix – re-purpose – share – docent-guided tour – self-guided tour
Lesson Three: Two Reasoned Responses to Sirc
Reasoned response #1. Sirc is advocating nothing more than throwing shit at the wall to see if it sticks. He might use 20th century modernist artists as a base for his ideas, but he relies on worn-out notions of romantic expressionism and the trendy, self-help ideas of engaging your Passion to defend his so-called pedagogy. The truly difficult – and highly valued – mental work of analysis goes by the board in this plan, as does any criteria for evaluation of the work or of students. There’s no critical thinking going on here – not even the possibility of it occurring. This is Creative Writing 101 Lite. You don’t even need a teacher to do this!
Reasoned response #2. Sirc is re-defining the comp teacher as curator, and the processes of composition as it unfolds in the classroom as a physical, material engagement with those practices, ‘from l’etat brut inquiry” to the logic of being engaged scholars 138. The influx of new media may be the occasion for this re-definition but the box logic Sirc sketches places students in a valuable pedagogical relationship with that new media and new media practices – practices that go on around us all both inside and outside the academy: within and without the walls. You can’t write this off by calling it creative writing, mere expressionism. The approach, the method, might be novel to humanists, but it’s how Agassiz or any good science teacher teaches the next wave of scientists. The approach patently requires a teacher, but one that acts as a curator rather than a docent.