Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Richard Miller's Writing at the End of the World: Am I a Horseman?

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of picking up Richard Miller's Writing at the End of the World, a book that voiced many of the concerns I was already having and further complicated my stance as an educator. I'd recommend everyone read this book.

Miller, a professor at Rutgers University, well-known for his blog text2cloud, examines writing, reading, and what it means to our world. As English instructors, we are often blinded by our idealism. We love reading and writing because we believe it is transformative, that reading can make people see the world anew or inspire them to be "good" (whatever that means). A glass bottle theory, Miller takes a cherry bomb and ignites it from the inside, shattering the illusion. According to Miller, neither literature nor writing is truly transformative. He writes:
we tell ourselves and our students over and over again about the power of reading and writing while the gap between rich and poor grows greater, the Twin Towers come crashing down, and somewhere some other group of angry young men is at work silently stockpiling their provisions for the next apocalypse. (5)
He cites serial killers and mass murderers like the Columbine shooters as evidence, and quite convincingly. Miller truly makes you question what the focus of a Composition classroom should be. In a world where people are in constant suffering, where relationships are pulled apart and people disconnected, where violence has become a far-too-used medium of expression, what is it that we want our students to do, to learn? Is it fair for us to continue to reproduce our own values, to deny the violent world at the expense of preserving the safety bubble of the academia? Miller thinks not, and I agree.

As a solution, Miller suggests that we turn back to the personal, not necessarily rants or memoirs, but the local, the real. "Pragmatic pedagogy" is the term he uses. Miller defines it as such:
[if] the students learn how to register their reservations about academic practice in ways that can be heard as reasoned arguments rather than dismissed as the plaintive bleating of sheep, if they learn to pose their questions about the work before them in ways that invite response, and if, finally, they learn how to listen to and learn from the responses they receive, they may well be in a better position to negotiate the complex social and intellectual experiences that await them just beyond the classroom's walls. (141)
Ultimately, Miller urges teachers to give up elitist visions of Literary Studies and Composition, and instead, encourage students to forge and fortify connections through the studies of the humanities. If we ignore this advice, I ultimately believe that academics will become one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, the ones who will drag the future generation down into the end of the world, as we will have left them incapable of dealing with the problems in their midst.

Here are some of my favorite lines from Miller's book:

"we no longer live in a world where human action can be explained. We have plenty of information; it just doesn't amount to anything" (8). 

"'composition,' which I construe to mean the art of putting oneself and one's writing together." (37)

"revision not as the act of tidying up past transgression, but as the ongoing process of entertaining alternatives" (50).

"The danger of the written word is, thus, its promise; the fact that it can't be finally and completely controlled means that it forever retains the power to evoke new possibilities" (194).

"The practice of the humanities, so defined, is not about admiration or greatness or appreciation or depth of knowledge or scholarly achievement; it's about the movement between worlds, arms out, balancing; it's about making the connections that count" (198).


Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD said...

I needed to read this post before I wrote my latest post:


Maybe that's my problem; I don't make the material relevant enough. Or something.

I don't know. It's the end of the semester and at the moment, I'm in a place where I am unsure if there is anything that I could do to engage my students more effectively.

I teach about education, to get them thinking more critically about where they are and why, and I teach about "the future" to get them to think about where we are going.

I know that I'll be picking up the book. But I'll be waiting to read it once I have a bit of distance from the semester.

Heather said...

Thanks for this post. I think I would benefit from reading this book. Our little town here in Southeast Missouri has experienced record rainfall and flooding over the past two weeks. My students have experienced disruption, displacement and upheaval. It seemed rather strange our first day back at school, gathered in our classroom after everything the students had recently experienced, to jump right into our books and lesson plan for the day. I had the students journal for 10 minutes about their "flood story,” but I suppose I was searching for a deeper way to connect the classroom to the chaos occurring just outside our cloistered campus.

NP said...

Heather, I am terribly sorry to hear about the flooding in your town. I can only imagine how devastating it must be. I'm sure your students appreciated the chance to write about it, rather than being forced to immediately return to the "strictly academic."

I think you'd enjoy Miller's book. Though it leaves far fewer answers for educators than I would like, I think it provokes some interesting thoughts and hard-hitting questions for us.

I hope things start to look up soon!