I’m a fan of the sustainability in composition model shared by Derek Owens of St. John’s University and Mary Newell of the U.S. Military Academy. Discovering their research vindicated what I had already been doing in my Developmental English/Writing courses and the textbook that I wrote for the class. There is no doubt that my students enjoyed writing about their lives, and I found them to be interesting; some writings became edited student essays in my textbook. Likewise, the vast majority of model essays reflected my experiences and studies.
Yet there is little doubt that many administrators and instructors would oppose much of my work, finding it too wide open. Here is my favorite way to summarize my detractors’ arguments, “Once I share the titles of these two edited students’ essays, I’ve made enemies: My Favorite Job: Driving a Tank in the Bosnian Conflict and My Favorite Music: Chopped, Screwed Dirty South Rap.” Critiques include “too regional and idiosyncratic,” too left-wing, too right-wing, too pro-military, too counterculture, too Texas, and not White enough. A recent article from Business Insider showed Texas to be the least popular state in the nation with other states, confirming a suspicion by a neighbor made several years earlier. Yet one should note that the prompts themselves weren’t controversial in themselves.
However, I’ve seen two horribly repressive persuasive essay prompts from the local community college: “(1) Why did you choose this college, and which is your favorite campus—no criticism is allowed. (2) Persuasive Essay: No controversial topics, such as abortion or marijuana legalization.” In the first instance, we see a case of pure propaganda. The depressed acquaintance had to be urged not to drop the course. In the second instance, we see a situation in which permission should have been sought before writing. Moreover, each instructor provided only that one narrow prompt.
The most gruesome model essay that I’ve ever seen in a textbook was about assisted suicide for the sickly, referring to the suicides of an elderly theologian couple. It has become a fixture in many Developmental English textbooks, and I challenged this essay in my essay, “Disputing Assisted Suicide of the Sickly.” https://bohemiotx.wordpress.com/2014/07/30/disputing-suicide-advocacy-for-the-sickly-a-model-essay-in-developmental-english-textbooks-by-jd-meyer
My main guidelines for essays were as follows: (1) The topic should be sufficiently broad or narrow to complete in the required length of the essay (typical). (2) No essays about committing crimes. (3) No reliving of sexual conquests or blunders. It hadn’t occurred to me that assisted suicide would be viewed as viable by the American textbook industry.
A common prompt is the “worst” something (as well as favorite), whether it’s a restaurant, job, boss, or whatever. I warned against writing about the reliving the worst of its category because one could get depressed, mad, and not finish their essay. On the other hand, it may be tough to decide which was the best or favorite restaurant, job,or boss, and you’d waste time trying to decide honestly which was #1 or #2. So settle for telling me about something in your top one-fourth.
Two of my oldest essays would escape criticism, especially from the elderly MeTV crowd: “A Favorite TV Series—Secret Agent” and “A Favorite Movie—The Fountainhead.” These would offer a touch of post World War II history as well. A couple of edited student essays would be accepted, such as “A Favorite CD—Natalie and Nat Cole” (through the miracle of modern recording technology) and “Comparing Two Jobs: Burger King and Target Warehouse.” Hey, that first essay was about contemporary music, and it’s safe.
I don’t mind teaching for the standardized test, and my persuasive chapter offers “A Study Guide for the THEA: Impressions and Objective Analysis.” That’s the all-important exit exam for all three Developmental courses. However, my human interest biography of Bruce Dickinson, best-known as the Iron Maiden singer, would probably face opposition for his genre and the critic wouldn’t bother to discover Bruce can fly jets, fence, drive tanks, host music programs, write fiction, and more. Orthodox forces have a narrower definition of what’s truly human.
Perhaps we could devise some cynical essay self-censoring model to save something besides the grammar chapter. The ad hominem logical fallacy is criticizing the product because of its creator, regardless if the product happens to be good this time. Dr. Maulana Karenga, the developer of Kwanzaa, faces such abuse because he was somewhat violent and Communist as a young man before settling down and becoming a star professor. Many want to over-generalize in their criticism or rightly fear reprisal from administrators and being ignored by textbook adopters. Maybe we should learn to anticipate and sadly acquiesce to it.
On the bright side, composition is one of the biggest college textbook markets; maybe it’s the ultimate regional market also. Keep some essays in Texas or leave them as prompts. Dr. Richard Florida, Business and Creativity professor at the University of Toronto, found that heavy metal is most popular in Scandinavia. So maybe I should look for an anthology over there. Dr. Florida became famous for his 4 T’s model of creativity leading to economic growth: talent, technology, tolerance, and territorial assets.
Somebody suggested that I go towards the ESOL market after seeing an account of my talk, “Knowing Spanish can Reduce Stress.” Earlier, somebody pointed to Diversity classes for counselors and social workers. Much of my African-American Studies chapter should be reserved for HBCU’s. The very social injustice and even ecological crises lamented by Derek Owens could easily be supported by a conservative establishment bent on socializing students for the workforce. Maybe enforcing nationwide, generic topics would be a strategy. As previously noted, the prompts are rarely problematic, but the individual response can show plenty of variety.
To conclude, collaboration among authors may be the safest route of all. There could be packets for various regions. Maybe a Texan could get wild and check out what’s going in another heavily populated state, such as New York or California. The Psalmist wrote, “Without counsel, plans go wrong , but with many advisers, they succeed.” Collaboration was the hallmark of Apple Computers in the Steve Jobs era too. Ekaterina Walter provides applicable insight from the business world. Knowing and understanding your customers have never been this important. Building long-term relationships so you can retain customers sounds much like college retention. Ms. Walter’s colleague, Nagy Thomas, CEO of Sprinklr, urges businesses to “hear the voice of the customer…Personalized experiences are helpful resources for those in need.” Let’s provide Developmental English and College Composition textbooks that inform, entertain, and persuade to borrow an expression from John Langan, the godfather of Developmental Reading and Writing textbooks.