The Incongruity of Books in a Writing Class


Spring Break signals the end of the school year for most students and no teachers. The smarter writing teachers have already graded their research papers. I am of those who grant the mercy  of an extra week of time to stressed-out, indecisive students. However, I have come to realize the term “research” is anathema to them. They would rather fall out of a ride at an amusement park or undergo dental surgery. My mercy helps no one. The writing of  papers is simply postponed. You would think I might have learned that by now.

Stubbornness is one of the doors to the house of Stupidity, where I dwell, on the street of Hope, in the city of Delusion. I have stubbornly insisted on mercy just as I have stubbornly insisted on a book list. The book list includes an anthology of philosophical and political writings that I think is amazing. It is titled A World of Ideas, edited by Jacobus and put out by Bedford St Martin.  I tell myself that students will have the chance to become acquainted with Aristotle, Frederick Douglass, Plato, Margaret Mead, Henry David Thoreau and other great writers. Aside from those who enjoy the moving account given by Douglass of his escape from slavery (thanks in great part to learning to read), I would estimate that 70 percent of the students actively enrolled in the class from the outset not only looked upon this anthology with exceeding wariness and distaste, but perhaps a full 50% actively loathed it.

I believe the books I have assigned, the glorious A World of Ideas being front and foremost, are what caused the drops this semester (and every semester). By “drop,” I am referring to students who drop out of the class. Some years ago, a few students indicated to me that they were appalled at the amount of reading required, strangely, in a “writing” class. They argued that the emphasis should be on writing, not reading. I do not hear that complaint anymore because I try to explain from the beginning of the semester what reading does to the thought process of the writer. It unleashes and frees; it inspires; it creates new avenues of wording. Because it does those things, I can tell how many students are reading, and how much they are doing that.

Not so many, and of those who do the reading, not all complete it.

How do I know these things? Because I have read in student essays that Martin Luther King Jr. freed the slaves, that Philus (a literary creation of Cicero) was a famous Roman orator and that Thoreau went to prison for a very long time.

When it comes to the research book I assign, and there are a great many good ones that explain exactly how to cite a reference both in text and on the Works Cited page, you would think I had required my students to walk over hot coals. Bedford St. Martins made the book I chose this semester so easy that the MLA segment is color coded a cheerful orange. Impossible to miss. That is, if one has not dropped the book into the toilet tank.

Adding insult to injury, I have required my students buy my own collection of stories, Under a Crescent Moon: Stories of Arabia.   I spent a week coming up with intelligent questions to this book.  I know that a good many students never read the wonderful selections in A World of Ideas, depending instead on class discussions to get a foggy idea of the topic.  By fulfilling this new assignment, they will have to spend some time in critical thought stemming from reading.

That is if they buy the book.  Judging by the expression of some, I have brought in one book too many, and it does not matter that they are all reasonably priced if not downright cheap. Some may be nursing their grudges against me over their  $5 Starbucks frappuccinos.