Anyone who has been the target of an outrageous sling tries to find out who did the slinging and how he managed to get hit. Sifting and cataloguing the events that preceded into some kind of chronological and logical sense, he deals with the insult, separating, as a victim must, facts from fault, trying to extract from the experience some useful truth. Self-esteem demands the inquest, and Martin Russ, who has been denied tenure at Carnegie-Mellon University, obliges.
The result is "Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor," a journal of Russ' daily experiences as a university professor teaching classes in expositional and creative writing and his political battles to retain his position. Addressed to a friend who expects to teach writing, the often hilarious entries made during a fall semester often practical advice with such maxims as: "Arguing with a student is like trying to review a John Hawkes novel, impossible to come to grips with the thing"; "Make sure you don't get stuck in a seminar room where everyone sits around a table rubbing knees and elbows . . . and the students can peek at your notes?; "Never ask what they prefer to be called . . . it smacks of good guyism," and, "Stop dead at the bell, students go deaf as soon as it rings."
Russ details his assignments, explaining their rationale and, on occasion, listing the questions that accompany them. He suggests, for example, reading aloud from Thurber's "A Couple of Hamburgers," to illustrate the "Show -- Dont't Tell Principle," Kenneth Tynan's article about the meeting between Hemingway and Tennessee Williams in Havana to teach orchestration and tension arising from dissimilarities between characters, the final paragraph from Joyce's "The Dead" to illustrate how sound and rhythm contribute to the effect of a passage, and the first chapter of "Of Mice and Men" to explore conventional plotting, foreshadowing and how to convey personality with a "minimum of fuss." On dialogue, in which undergraduate students tend to overinclude the inane, Russ advises, "It's easy to write once you figure out what characters need to talk about."
One of the difficulties writing teachers have is getting undergraduates to make a personal commitment on paper. The unwillingness to take a stand may reflect Erik Erikson's definition of late adolescence as a search for identity, a move toward self-certainty as opposed to apathy. This explains in part why undergraduates would "rather describe than narrate . . . tell than show . . . summarize than dramatize . . . explain than demonstrate . . . obscure than clarify," all of which removes them one step further from involvement. Getting the student to understand that a piece of writing is not a secret shared by the initiated, but an honest exchange between writer and reader, with no tricks, is some trick. "The reader is entitled to know exactly what's going on at every point of the story," says Russ. Those of us who teach writing know how hard it is to get that simple message across to students who would prefer to cloud their work with symbols, koans and other syntactical smoke bombs. To counteract this reluctance to commit, Russ writes, "great stories are built around an active struggle of some kind" and suggests that the teacher try to get the student "spinning the actual yarn in the first sentence ('Simba roared')."
To his expositional writing students hiding behind bureaucratic jargon, Russ advises that if they blurt out conversationally what they wanted to write, they will be able to state what they need to say simple, clearly and more gracefully.
What comes through in this book is great feeling for the student and an appreciation of the art and philosophy of teaching. Most university professors have not been taught how to teach. Rather, each is considered an expert in his particular subject, but the art, the psychology, the technique of teaching, have been sadly relegated to the more humble bailiwick of the secondary and primary school teacher.
Russ writes of asking "one leading question after another -- so that the students say all that needs to be said." His view of the teacher as a mild irritant, the purpose of which is to get the student to think for himself, is consistent with Socrates' definition of the teacher as the "gadfly of thought." Russ suggests a liberal use of the conditional tense, such as: "Couldn't it be possible that," "I wouldn't be surprised if," even though the teacher is demanding from his students "straight ahead answers." He counsels a friend to listen to her students. "They'll tell you, indirectly, what they need to know." This piece of advice may be the hardest of all for teachers to follow. It means scrapping lesson plans and lectures along with assumptions. It means paying attention to the moment and to the student. It also requires that the teacher be prepared for the inevitable challenge of the student who asks "What's the point of this?"
He stresses the importance of allowing students to achieve their own insights rather than having them stuffed down their throats like corn down a Strasbourg goose. A student can only accept information as his own needs and timetable allow; the progenitor of this idea was Rousseau's counsel to teachers not to save time but to lose it. Even at the university level, undergraduates busy sorting out what is of value to them and what is not, who they are and what they believe in, can't be rushed.
Threaded through the journal entries is the politcs of academia. Russ examines the system of tenure. "It was invented . . . to protect academic freedom; but the freedom it protects, more often than not, is the freedom to teach poorly." His conclusion is that his colleagues disliked him personally, and he faults them for "taking away a man's employment because he made them a little uneasy." "Showdown Semester" is recommended to writers, teachers of writing and university faculty in any discipline who could use some ideas.