I recently watched the adorable movie Julie and Julia with the incomparable Meryl Streep and the impossibly cute Amy Adams. Yes, the movie is about blogging (and cooking), but that’s not my point. There is a scene in which Julia Child is writing to a friend, and she describes herself leaping out of bed every morning because she is so eager about her next lesson at Le Cordon Bleu.
This is how I feel about my job. I am a college instructor of English, and each time a new semester starts, I find myself leaping out of bed in the morning, usually around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. to get ready for the day. Sometimes I need to prepare an assignment, sometimes I have unfinished grading or reading, and sometimes I just can’t wait to get to class and interact with my students.
We have lively discussions. We talk about reading, education, the environment, gender roles, feminism, cultures, societies, and many other topics. I do not teach these subjects or their content. Instead, we write about the issues. We read, we discuss, and we write. Everybody’s opinions are safe in my classroom, and we usually have a debate of some sort. I live for these moments.
“What does your class read?” you ask. Well, we read whatever essays are in the textbook or anthology I’m using that semester. However, I’m particularly fond of the book I have been using this year called The Brief McGraw Hill Reader: Issues across the Disciplines edited by Gilbert H. Muller. It is a broad collection of essays on many subjects, and most of them are short. Length is important to students, and although I sometimes worry that a brief essay will not give us enough to discuss or write about, these essays deliver almost every time.
One of my favorites is an excerpt from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave called “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass. Douglass recounts the difficulties he encountered in just learning how to read and write. As a slave, he was not sent to school nor encouraged to learn. In fact, he was punished. He began tricking the white boys in the area into teaching him letters, words, and eventually became literate and extremely successful.
Juxtaposed with this essay is Richard Rodriguez’s “The Lonely, Good Company of Books.” Rodriguez shares his childhood love of books, despite never having seen his parents read anything for pleasure. Rodriguez’s quest for knowledge through books is impressive and inspiring. He mentions a list of important books mentioned in a college professor’s obituary. He began to read that list. In my classroom, we fill out the popular BBC top 100 books list (from Facebook) and see who has read the most of those. I always win, but it’s fun to see what these college freshman have been exposed to in high school and to see what they hope to read in the future.
After reading these two essays, I see students who approach their educations with a little more sobriety, humility, and conviction. We often compare Douglass’s struggles to our own elementary school educational experiences. None of us had to trick anybody into teaching us how to read. None of us was beaten for being caught with a book. None of us has been a slave.
Other interesting essays from our textbook include Louis Menand’s “The Graduates.” Menand compares college to a giant sleepover, and tells a fascinating hypothetical story about tuna sandwiches and childhood sleepovers as his hook. Anna Quindlen–Pulitzer Prize winner, bestselling novelist, and former Newsweek columnist–has an essay titled “Sex Ed” in this collection. She makes the point that sex education should be taught in the home, but more importantly that self respect and control should be taught at home, as these qualities extend into every sphere of life.
Students like this essay collection. I like it because students like it. Last semester was my first to teach from this book. I did so blindly, reading for the first time along with the students. A few of the essays were ill placed in the syllabus and a few were dry, but overall we encountered interesting issues and found exciting ways to write about them.
In fact, after leaping out of bed this morning, I found out just how exciting my class had been. Several of my students sent emails expressing how much they miss their English 1010 class now that they have moved on to English 2010. I miss them too. We enjoyed each other’s company and found pleasure in reading and writing.