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A Writing Teacher's Blog

Permanent link to archive for 5/31/05. Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Hunting around for something else, I came upon this 5 x 7 notecard where I had recorded the opening of a student essay from about 25 years ago. Should the student read and recognize this, I'll happily give credit:

Life is in a sense, a life long process. Many things come into it and many things go out of it. Changes occur everyday. If it takes a lifetime to live, how can it be possible that one single event can change a life so drastically for better or worse.?

Most teachers of writing will recognize this kind of problematic opening, full of cliches, circularity, wild generalities, yet raising a fundamentally profound question. In one sense, this represents the heart of teaching college composition. A student has an idea. The student has even formulated that idea as a question, which could easily drive an essay to consider the ironies and paradoxes we face each day. But the student has no sense of the particularites related to the broad question. The student says the obvious, not recognizing that the only effective means of conveying these ideas is through the texture of time, place, person and event. We need to know if the life changing moment came through a parent's death, being left by a lover, suddenly losing or finding faith--or hope, seeing the ocean for the first time, feeling the romance and pull of the full moon, or understanding some text in a way that re-educates perception (a term from John Dewey).

And so the teaching challenge is to get the student to connect the banalites to real experiences, observations, or recollections. When that happens, there's a real chance for a paper worth reading.


Permanent link to archive for 5/24/05. Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Yesterday, I turned in the following letter to my dean, with copies to the President and Chancellor.

On December 10, 2004, I gave notice of my intent to retire on June 30, 2006 to qualify for the early incentive program. That requires that on this date I formally declare my intention to retire on June 30, 2006 and I ask that the Board act on that request.

Thus, this letter represents my formal request for retirement at the end of the next academic year. In doing so, I expect to retire under the provisions of Article 19 of The Agreement.

That will represent 41 years of continuous full-time service to Foothill, De Anza and the district in a range of roles, including teacher, researcher, writer, administrator and leader in various governance groups. My entire adult life has been devoted to the students of this district, to the communities we serve and to my colleagues. A few years ago, I published an article in a scholarly journal titled “I Cannot Imagine Having a Better Job,” and I meant it.

I know many of my colleagues use this occasion to review their time of service. Soon, I will write my own version of my career highlights, largely because when you stay around this long, no one else remembers what you were doing way back when.

I appreciate your support in whatever arrangements need to be made for my replacement, especially in the linguistics courses.


And so, if all goes well, I'll have a year of leave-takings and letting go. As it turned out, I have not had a fear of what I would do after full-time teaching. I practiced that on my last two full-year sabbaticals. But I have found it hard to accept the reality that there are several courses I like that I'll never teach again. I hadn't realized there would be that kind of letting go process.


Permanent link to archive for 5/22/05. Sunday, May 22, 2005


Exactly two years ago today, I made my first posting to this blog. [See THE FIRST EIGHT BLOGS]. In looking back, I think I've pretty well accomplished my central purpose, to document my work as a writing teacher in a large two-year college. I write from the context of 40 years of full-time teaching, with an annual course load of 8 classes, typically loaded this way: 5 first-year comp (150 students), 1 developmental comp (25 students), 2 elective courses, one in literature, one in linguistics (90 students), for an annual total of 265 students. Over that time, I also taught summer session about 80% of the years. What I have tried to do here is describe some of the day-to-day realities of teaching, service and professional development work that fits most of the people who teach college composition full-time, namely my community college colleagues.

I've also tried to address issues of theory and practice as they have been articulated by leaders in our profession through journals and conferences. And, frankly, I count myself as one of those leaders.

The readership of the blog has been steady and heartening, though the numbers are more consistent than dramatic. I have had a lot of positive and supportive feedback, which encourages me on my next project, namely to turn this material into a more accessible and usable format.

The reference above to a "turning point" is more than just that, however. I have not felt well for over a month now. My doctor has done enough tests and procedures to confirm that I'm facing a serious health challenge, though there's no definitive diagnosis yet. As I've said from the outset, this blog is a public place, not one where I will go into personal and private matters. Looking back, I realize part of the impulse to do all this documenting followed the death of my father and my diagnosis with a choroidal melanoma in Fall, 2002. I have heard "time's winged chariot hurrying near."

This posting is not announcing the end of the blog. But I want those who have followed my writing regularly to know that my focus will be elsewhere for the forseeable future. I will probably still write here. When I lost my son Gregory nine years ago, I learned that one important value writing provides me is the "illusion of control." We live in a chaotic, disordered world beyond any individual's control. None of us is promised tomorrow. But as long as I can compose these little notes and essays today, all running on straight lines in orderly margins, I can pretend for the moment that I'm in control. I have always found that comforting, so I will continue to seek that solace.

And should the Fates decide that I come out of this particular challenge with healing and good energy, you can be damn sure I'll be writing about it.


Permanent link to archive for 5/21/05. Saturday, May 21, 2005


I just posted the following comment on the TechRhet listserv and thought I'd pass it on here:

I too have been distracted the past few weeks, so I haven't fully followed some of these threads. But Steve's comments triggered these thoughts:

While writing is a tool and thus a technology, that's probably the most trivial aspect of writing. At the same time, to say that writing is about communication is a bit like saying life is about breathing. True, but so what?

For me, writing (and reading) must always be conceptualized in the context of humans as languaging beings. We can't NOT communicate. If we don't have speech, we learn signs. If we wander a British beach speechless, we play the piano. While writing has many transactional values, it has equally important expressive values. Writing for others is important; so is writing for self.

Why is school writing so screwed up? At the risk of being reductionist, I'll delineate the major problem . A little over a century ago, academics decided university students should write term papers. Given that, they moved from rhetoric and composition infusing the entire four-year curriculum (still true in the 1870s), and decided to teach writing in the first year, focusing on the term paper as the outcome. By the 1890s (if not earlier), high schools began shaping their curriculum around university entrance requirements. They saw that the term paper was a big deal at the university, so they determined that should be the focus of the high school writing curriculum. Later, after WWII, with the rise of the SAT, high schools added the five-paragraph essay as the model for passing university entrance. So four years of high school writing are devoted to two narrow models of transactional writing, the term paper and 5 paragraph essay.

Middle schools and elementary schools understood they had to prepare students for the rigors of high school. So against everything we know about language and cognitive development, those schools started doing mini-term papers and simple versions of the 5-paragraph essay. In my local community, I know of 4th grade teachers who assign "term papers," whatever the hell that can mean to 10-year olds.

For thirty years or more now, our profession has been trying to chip away at this curricular bulwark. We've promoted expressivism, social activism, service learning writing, journaling, and now blogs. My impression is the term paper and the five paragraph essay are more entrenched than ever. A few years ago, Ross Winterowd (emeritus professor of rhet/comp at University of Southern California) said to me that nothing about this would change until MLA quit treating the term paper as the highest form of scholarly writing. In Ross's view, PMLA is simply a collection of term papers. You'll note that the other major player, College Board, has reinforced the importance of the 5 paragraph essay with its new essay requirement for the SAT.

So there it is: if we want a revolution in the teaching of writing, we need to create a revolution in College Board and MLA. Ho, ho, ho!

I can't remember which blog I found this one on, but I thank the person.

Your Inner European is Spanish!

Energetic and lively.

You bring the party with you!


Permanent link to archive for 5/20/05. Friday, May 20, 2005

HELEN YUILL, 1920-2005 (680)

This afternoon, I attended memorial services for my colleague Helen Yuill, who died April 29 at the age of 85. St. Mark's Episcopal Church was filled, though I only recognized two colleagues from Foothill, Nancy Shrier and Joan MacDonald, who knew Helen from her years at Foothill.

Helen was remarkable for her grace, charm and brilliance as an actress, as well as being on outstanding teacher of speech and drama. She taught public speaking courses, but specialized in the Oral Interpretation class. She also was the only member of the De Anza speech department to design an individualized course in speech therapies for students with specific deficiencies in articulation. She was also active in the faculty Reader's Theatre group which included her fellow Canadian, Don Fraser (who died last year), Jack Wright, Dave Ward, Wayne Shrope, and Dave Williams. All but Wayne have passed on. It's an era and tradition that literally has died out.

Helen performed numerous roles in Palo Alto and Los Altos community theatres, including a fine "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with Don Fraser. Her tour-de-force performance, however, was her one-woman show of "The Belle of Amherst," based on the poems of Emily Dickinson.

Her husband Bob said she kept going right up to the end--that's the kind of person she was. She was still active in Reading for the Blind, using her rich, nuanced voice for the benefit of others.

Since no one else from De Anza came to the memorial, I felt I should take note here.


Permanent link to archive for 5/17/05. Tuesday, May 17, 2005


We're holding Academic Senate elections this week. Last Friday I distributed copies of this Open Letter to all of my faculty colleagues, full and part-time, a total of about 1100.


From: John Lovas, English

Friday, May 13, 2005

We are about to have our annual Academic Senate election, our faculty foray into democracy, and we’ll probably have no real campaign. We’ll do better than three years ago when we failed to field candidates, but even with a candidate’s statement, it’s hard to know what issues the faculty as a whole want addressed.

So I’m offering this position paper as a challenge to both my colleagues across the campus and to the college leadership. My fundamental concern lies in the sad fact that we have no corporate faculty life or culture at De Anza. We never meet as a whole faculty to address issues of educational philosophy or curriculum development or professional development. And we have not yet found a way to use technology, especially the Web, to promote campus-wide discussion of these kinds of issues.

I believe these circumstances come from the intersection of several factors. A very high portion of the current full-time faculty has been hired in the last ten years. During that time, very few college-wide discussions of academic issues have occurred. Where once it was common for individual faculty as well as college leaders to put ideas forward in writing, on the whole, we are now a writing-free faculty. Management leadership has been even worse in this regard. I can’t remember the last time an idea was proposed by managers in the Instruction Office.

Let me offer one possible explanation for this situation. Over the last several years, it has been commonplace to celebrate ourselves. We give lots of awards and hold ceremonies in the Campus Center to honor the awardees. We are very proud of ourselves. While recognizing faculty and staff accomplishments should always be part of our efforts, I think many leaders may have mistaken past successes with what makes De Anza a superior college. I see much effort to maintain De Anza’s great programs (you can fill in the names here), but De Anza’s success never came from maintaining status quo. We got big and we got good because we were always looking forward. “Constant, purposeful innovation” was Bob De Hart’s mantra.

In the true De Anza spirit, the last three years of limited budgets would have been met by proposals to reorganize, by developing new programs and curricula to serve unmet community needs, by galvanizing the entire faculty to share ideas and debate the best direction to go. Instead, we’ve had expense control and enrollment management as the exclusive focus of leadership efforts. There’s not a lot of room for faculty to bring its academic expertise and its considerable knowledge base to bear there.

Until this year, I have participated in every Accreditation Self-Study. About 12 years back, I was faculty co-chair as well as editor of the Self-Study. I understand the process quite well. We’ve actually undergone a Self-Study this year, but it appears to be a stealth operation. Despite publishing a time-line calling for communicating regularly to the college community, as of this writing, none of the self-study drafts have been made generally available. If you aren’t on a committee, you probably have no idea what critiques have been made of our current practice. That’s not the way accreditation is supposed to work. Every faculty member should at least have a chance of knowing what affirmations are being made, what areas of weakness are being exposed. The only way for the committees to validate their work is to gain the assent of the faculty. It’s very late in the day for that. I can assure you no vigorous campus-wide debate of anything will occur in June.

I was heartened by President Brian Murphy’s recent call for a task force on civic and community engagement. This effort will cut across disciplines and provide one good forum for considering future directions. But I would like to call on our newly-elected Senate leaders to initiate a parallel effort—an extensive and well-publicized plan for campus engagement. If we believe we are preparing students for engaging in public discourse in the wider community, then shouldn’t we be modeling that here on campus? Our writing program is one of the largest on campus. Every quarter we enroll thousands of students in writing courses at many levels, both developmental and transfer. We do this because we claim to students that writing well is a key to academic and professional success. But as a faculty we talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

Perhaps there’s a good argument for turning our shared governance processes into purely bureaucratic devices, without providing the consistent and wide-spread communication that shared governance depends on. Perhaps most of the faculty accept the factory-model of education, where each of us produces our WSCH, holds our office hours, and then heads for the freeway. Perhaps most of us believe that since we are ONLY a community college, we play no role in knowledge-making and shaping curriculum in higher education. If that’s so, I would appreciate some colleagues putting that argument forward. If it’s not the case, I would appreciate reading what my colleagues across campus do think about our purposes and direction as a college.

Finally, even though our Senate election is uncontested, I urge every one of you to cast a ballot, to commit that tiny act of campus engagement to let your leaders know you are present, you want to participate, and you expect your leaders to provide forums for campus-wide discussion.

Thank you for taking the time to read these comments.

[Paid for out of my personal funds.]


Permanent link to archive for 5/15/05. Sunday, May 15, 2005

50 YEARS AGO (658)

I've spent a lot of this weekend back in 1955. This afternoon I caught the end of Rebel Without a Cause, the scene where James Dean tries to talk a paranoid Sal Mineo out of the Griffiths Observatory, with Natalie Wood looking on anxiously. Of course, Mineo brandishes his gun (Dean has already taken the magazine out) and the police shoot Mineo. This film was probably the first to portray teen-age culture, complete with drag races and guys showing off to impress girls. Dean's presence created an image of the new young rebel.

Friday night I watched (and recorded) "ELVIS: By the Presleys", a reminiscence mostly by Priscilla Presley and daughter Lisa Marie, but also a few of Elvis' close associates. The special had lots and lots of clips from movies, live shows and films.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day reading Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis, the most thorough and thoroughly researched account of Elvis' early life and his rise to fame. The focus on 1955 came when I was reminded that Elvis' first gig outside of the south was in February that year at the Circle Theatre Jamboree in Cleveland, where I was born and grew up. Now I can't say I was there. But Tommy Edwards and Bill Randle, the WERE DJs who had played Elvis' early recordings and brought him to Cleveland, were shows I listened to regularly, along with WJW's Allen Freed ("The Moondogger"). But by the time of Elvis' performance, Freed had moved to New York where he took credit for creating the phrase "rock'n'roll".

Now I was not a super-hip teenager. I was a pretty serious student, but I did listen to the new music. I went to mixers and sock hops at my school and the public school, where mostly I'd hang out with friends watching the brave guys actually dancing. Our high school even had a DJ show (I think Randle emceed) who would bring new acts out to lip-synch their records. The Platters were the featured group, one of the Mo-town quartets. [I still get chills when I hear "My Prayer."] But down the list was a new, young country singer named Pat Boone. So I had some exposure to this new music that was just being defined and shaped, primarily by Elvis. Remember that John Lennon later said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing."

I was a junior in high school in early 1955, and I wouldn't get my driver's license until very late that year, when I was a senior. So my dad had to drive me and my date (Janet Hostel, God bless her, wherever she is) to the prom, held in our decorated gym at St. Edward High School, in Lakewood, Ohio.

Looking back, I can see that that period--1954-1959--started a transformation in American popular culture that no one could have imagined then. In reading Guralnick, I found out that when Elvis was doing his early touring as part of the Louisiana Hayride, he was once on the same bill as Buddy Holly, and that Roy Orbison caught at least one of Elvis' concerts. One great social achievement of Elvis' music was to open up white audiences to rhythm and blues and gospel music. When Sam Phillips of Sun Records took the first Elvis record around to radio stations, a lot of the DJs assumed he was black, based on his vocal stylings. It's very hard to know what influenced what, but Harry Truman's desegregation of the Armed Forces and the Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s efforts in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott (his principles articulated later in his classic Letter from a Birmingham Jail], and numerous other places set in motion a huge transformation in American culture. The counter-cultural impact of performers like James Dean and Elvis Presley created an appetite for change in many young people, certainly in me.

Having an African-American female succeed an African-American male as Secretary of State, both appointed by a Republican from Texas, would have been a ridiculous notion in 1955. Folks were just trying to get a drink of water at a public fountain, or choose their seat on a bus. In 1955, words like "multicultural" and "sexist" and "cultural diversity" had not been coined.

Part of this looking back is just nostalgia, but it also reminds me that progressive change develops out of the yearnings and ambitions of ordinary Americans. I sometimes think progressives today are trying to repeat past successes, rather than look to where new creative forces are working in the culture. I also realize how much television, by capturing these elements of teen-age culture and exploiting them in cliched ways, has made it very hard for young people to find their own ground to stand on.


Permanent link to archive for 5/13/05. Friday, May 13, 2005


B has been sorting through old boxes of stuff and found this bit of verse that appears to have been included in a planning document for De Anza back in the 70s.

It's Called 'Passing the Buck Down the Line'

Said the community college instructor,
"Such rawness in a student is a shame,
Lack of preparation in high school is to blame."
Said the high school teacher,
"Good Heavens, that boy's a fool.
The fault, of course, is with the grammar school."
The grammar school teacher said,
"From such stupidity,
may I be spared. They sent
him up to me so unprepared."
The primary teacher huffed,
"Kindergarten blockheads all.
They call that preparation...
why, it's worse than none at all."
The kindergarten teacher said,
"Such lack of training never
did I see. What kind of a
woman must that mother be?"
The mother said, "Poor helpless
child. He's not to blame
His father's people
were all the same."
Said the father at the end
of the line, "I doubt the
rascal's even mine."

• Unknown Author


May 2005
Apr   Jun

 Updated Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 11:00:17 PM by John Lovas -
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