Writing the Wrong
The Devil in Norwalk
I am always wondering how to make writing assignments for my English 101 composition class more interesting. When one is required to take an academic writing class in order to get their hard won and expensive degree in something unrelated, one tends to be recalcitrant and downright resentful of any assigment. I am aware, now more than ever, that most people HATE writing. They are intimidated by it--hell I am still anxious at times about churning out the requisite 900-1200 words this column calls for. I am counting the words now. It is one of those weeks when I am at a severe loss on what to write about so I will be ironic and write about teaching writing.
I instruct at an American college--a modest, but well run institution about 45 miles outside of New York City, In Norwalk, CT. I actually love teaching. I love it much more than I ever expected. Without fail, every semester, there are some students who make me glad about being able to teach. This semester I do have one student in my evening class, who actively dislikes me. They have made a deliberate decision and they are sticking to it. They sit in the second row and stare at me dubiously for an entire hour and a half. When they ask me a question they are totally sarcastic. Well, it could also just be their tone. I remember meeting someone once who kept grimacing at me in ten to fifteen second intervals, making me very self conscious, like I had passed gas in their gelato or something. When I confronted them (yes, I felt the need to take it personally) they explained they had a tick. That most humiliating lesson has stayed with me so I try not to assume too much too quickly about people--though clearly that is still proving to be a challenge for me.
The point is, there is no way I am going to win this particular student over; they have conviction, but wonder of wonders! I have actually grown up enough in the last year that I do not feel the hell-fire need to make everyone like me. I do not need to be pals with all my students, or even people I work with, and so I have decided to leave this student to their hearty disapproval. They are simply not thrilled with my Socrates meets Chris Rock method of teaching and told me that in front of the whole class one day and so I knew whatever I assiged the class would meet with severe derision from them.
The class is required to write an essay that has to persuade me of something. So I asked the students to write an essay persuading me that the devil either exists or does not exist. They, as a whole, have embraced that challenge. This student refused, however, insisting that they wanted to write about something postive, so they chose to persuade me that Mike Bloomberg should not outlaw smoking on public streets in NYC. I am not sure how that is more postive but I respect the fact that religion makes them squirrely--as they have indicated--and I am not a dictator. No one really learns under those conditions, I have found.
Thus far, I have had the spectrum presented to me. Some of the arguments against the existence of the devil are excellent. One or two of the arguments for the existence are essentially about the existence of God. As one student stated: If you do not believe in the devil, then you do not believe in God. Yet another made the argument that the devil is really just an aspect of the nature of the Universe, yin and yang. That if we are made in God's image then does it not follow that God, too has bad days? And is maybe cranky? It was the Almighty, they pointed out, that killed all the first born sons of Egypt, sent the locusts and generally wrought havoc when they felt like it. Human beings are complex, they argued, therefore, something as specific as the devil, a demon that leads us away from the righteous path--seems illogical. People are responsible for acts of horror, not the devil, they say. I am leaning towards agreeing with him. Some of the essays are deeply personal, talking about inner demons, addictions and disappointments that make the devil's mischief sound like a plausible possibility. When someone believes in something so fervently, it is so true to them that it takes on a certain veracity.
One of my students took a creative risk and wrote a satirical essay in the voice of a Bible thumping born again who attributes her inner joy and salvation to finding Christ through a fuzzy, warm Pastor. She does so in the style of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, where he suggests that England's solution to the Catholics procreating rapidly would be to simply eat all the extra children, thereby also solving the starvation problem many folks faced at that time. This is one of my favourite essays of all time and I was happy that one of my students evoked it, and successfully so. I actually laughed out loud.
I have yet to read the essay on Mike Bloomberg's anti-tobacco madness. I am just relieved this student is writing. And though, most likely they and I will never run through a meadow holding hands, by the time I am done with them, they will know how to write and support a viable thesis. And someday, they will thank me for it. Or they will tell me to go to the devil.
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