Hell 101

By Grundy, Dominick | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Hell 101


Grundy, Dominick, The Midwest Quarterly


I'M A PSYCHOLOGIST who teaches in an English Department at an institution known locally as The College. The College is in a suburban county whose chief executive recently announced, "We can and we will create our own identity." My profile at The College is low, but I have a weakness, the mailbox. A mailbox is a chink in the wall, an agony column in which to bare a soul. No matter how hard I try, mine will never be empty. It can and it will impinge on my identity. Its messages can give me awful dreams.

Recent bulletins have been about English 101. English 101 used to be the ugly sister of Literature, kept in the family because departments other than English wanted students to write competently on subjects other than English. English 101 required UN-grade bureaucratic spin, using such phrases as "strategies of persuasion," "logical expository prose," and "thesis development," because its rationale was murky.

When I taught it at a well-known university in the sixties, we all had a cubicle in a room that was almost the size of a banquet hall in Versailles. Each cubicle had one identical shelf with an identical dictionary. Known as English Instructors, we were watched over by the 101 program director, who sat behind a partition at one end. His name was English, Hubert English. He may have supervised us, but I don't recall a word he said. He looked like an aspiring minister, a decent but fragile sort whom you instinctively avoided for his own good. No one took the spin seriously, even those supplementing a low income by writing 101 textbooks to sell to their students. "Awareness and Argument," "Belief and Basic Writing," "Collaboration and Composition," "Commitment and Communication," "Dialogue to Discourse"--their titles devoured the alphabet. This was English talk, Hubert English talk, which never actually spoke to you.

Economic pressure and cultural values have changed all that. Exposing this old 101 talk as the turgid stuff everyone knew it to be is now a well-worn rite. Jobs are scarcer, and some assert that the ugly sister is an English Department's true Columbia. So English 101 now celebrates itself. For example, The College has English 101 Dialogue, publishing it in mailboxes as "composition Papers," puns compulsory. A recent bulletin asked me to attend a meeting to "shape the new vision of composition studies," taking it for granted that there is one.

My nightmare: I'm standing in a large meeting room at The College. Blurred faces munching hors d'oeuvres called a collation. Chardonnay with a hint of blush--an internal note? All around hover the position pontiffs of English 101. I bite my nails; if it hurts, there's hope of waking up. It means I have not died and gone to English 101. Meanwhile, I worry through my new paradigm beads. Should I be "text-based" (judgments based on final product in writing) or "process-based" (judgments based on steps along the way to final product)? Do I want to be a "pedagogic liberator," teaching people to throw off the shackles of society, and, if so, must I junk my "error strategies"? In other words, is it mistaken to view something as a "mistake"? Must I use "group dynamics" so as not to impose "majoritarian norms" of curricular attainment--i.e., is it fair to judge someone by what others can do? Do I grade on a curve? What is my slope? Should I want to change the name English Department to Composition Strategies Community or Rhetoric Zone?

But this, you will say, is the hum of pedagogy on a typical mailbox day. Where's the nightmare?

Talk has become my nightmare, and I need to find out why. Being chronically bereft of paradigm words, I fear if I patter along with the mavens in Hot Air Hall, there will be no going back on some awful surrender. Heating something hidden in the talk is my Hell 101.

Now, I can go along with a little word inflation. My parents were the first to hoot when garbage men became sanitation officers, but I could see wanting a cleaner sound to your job. …

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