Being Contrary

I’ve been reflecting on an approach I consciously employed last week in two different class scenarios — an online chat with graduate students and in a discussion of a literary reading with advanced writing students — just to see how it might stimulate the conversation.

I launched both by being contrary to student expectations. Students often inherently assume that because they have been assigned a topic or asked to read an essay, that the teacher inherently advocates for those topics or the points in those essays. This comes from reading information-centered textbooks, which often is delivered by the teacher as immutable truth. But ideas are issue-driven, and I think a good teacher models the good scholar in the field by showing how critical thinking circulates in that field. They risk raising issues about the assumptions that frame or underpin a statement of fact. They play devil’s advocate and are receptive to student questions and challenges. So in my classes this week, I took this to the extreme and I started the discussions from a negative, even somewhat hostile, position. I denounced the very idea of having a conversation about the text or the topic in the first place.
“Hostile” is probably connotes anger; that’s not what I mean. I have in mind antagonism and conflict rather than aggression. Let me explain what I did.

In the first instance, I was a “host” of a gathering of graduate Writing Popular Fiction students in an online discussion that was entitled “Work Habits for Writers.” The chatroom had no controls — it was a “free for all” conversation, with perpetually scrolling lines of input as students made their points or asked questions. But I worried that the topic threatened to bore them with dull dogmatic claims about the writing process and discipline, so I began the chat by tossing out a question, rather than making a claim. And I didn’t ask them “What are bad work habits that writers have?” but rather said “So do writers really need work habits all? Aren’t habits bad?”
To my happy surprise, it immediately summoned answers in defense of the topic, asserting why habitual work discipline is necessary and good. The students started listing all of their own habits, and explaining why they depended on them, and why these routines were productive for them. But more importanty, they immediately took OWNERSHIP of the topic, rather than just waiting for the teacher’s wisdom to be handed down. It was as if they felt the duty to remind me that it was my chosen topic and that it was my duty to run the show, and — dagnabit — if I didn’t take ownership of it, they would. It also worked as a preemptive strike that allowed those who wanted to be curmudgeonly to get their say and get over with it. I was a little worried before the chat that if I took the negative position that everyone would say “I agree” and then we’d have nothing left to talk about. But instead, the novelty of the approach raised critical thought. The remainder of the chat — an hour long — really put me on the “question-raising” side of the conversation, probing and challenging student comments, pressing them to answer the question “why” as much as “how.”
In my Publication Workshop course — an undergraduate face-to-face class in the English major which usually involves full class critique of a writer’s manuscript or a book chapter — I put the students in a circle to discuss a chapter of Annie Dillard‘s great book, The Writing Life, which they’d read for homework. I’d taught this excerpt before, and anticipated that it would be a very divisive reading: the pragmatists in the class (the majority of them) would be overly critical of Dillard’s whimsical musings and metaphor overload; the poets and philosophers would fawn over it, completely in love. Though I lean toward the latter of the two, neither reaction, I think, is justified because most undergraduates I’ve taught don’t quite understand her phenomenological approach to writing, where form follows content.

This time I wanted to cut off those reactions from the very start. So I took a contrarian approach — pretending at the start that Dilliard is not all she’s cracked up to be. I began the conversation not by asking a question but by reading from a review of The Writing Life by Bruce Bawer called “Author-Suffering” that appeared in American Scholar. In my opinion, it is a very negative review, but one that offers critical reasons for its response. As I read the most negative sections from the review aloud to the class, students laughed and covered their mouths at the audacity. It liberated the conversation, because “anything goes” after something like that. But the students who liked Dillard’s writing were immediately put on the defensive and came to the fore. Some saw the validity in Dillard’s writing and argued those points, and some thought Bawer had gone too far. But — truth be told — most students tacitly agreed with Bawer’s response. The review gave them permission to share their feelings, feelings which students in upper division courses are often hesitant to share because they don’t want to feel contrary to the teacher. Here they very carefully worded their reactions, which weren’t quite as hostile as Bawer’s but still based in a negative evaluation. This allowed me to offer probing questions that tested the criteria behind their evaluative reactions (Why do you think she uses “too many metaphors”? How many are too many? Where exactly do you draw the line?).

Because Publication Workshop is a course in writing for a public audience, the specter of what happens when you get a bad review was also released in the room, allowing us to address author fears and anxieties (which followed up on our class conversation about the first half of Betsy Lerner‘s book The Forest for the Trees). Reading bits and pieces from Bawer’s review aloud to the class — and hearing the vocalized reactions from the class — helped the more “literary” writers in the room to see the dangers, too, of being too literary. I raised the notion of epistemology — and even read a definition of “phenomenology” to the class from a book of literary terms — so they could better understand Dillard’s approach, but they still weren’t buying it.
To cap it off: for homework, I had asked all the students to write an extended metaphor for their own writing process to bring to class on the day we read Dillard. Going around the circle rapidly at the end of the hour, I asked everyone to report what they compared their writing process to (“writing is like fishing on a row boat…” etc.). After making the full round, I asked. “So was that too many metaphors?” Eyebrows lifted and heads nodded and I could see that — from the perspective of the respondent — the planned structure of the class itself helped make my point. Thus, beginning with negativity, and being contrary, I still had a position on the issue all along…but self-evidently, it was not the ONLY position possible, or even one that was articulated as the final one. They left class, still mulling it all over. That’s a great way to end.

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Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

3 thoughts on “Being Contrary”

  1. I love what you did with the chat, Mike. When I come up with a topic like “Work Habits for Writers,” it’s usually because I believe strongly that work habits are important. So I’d find it hard to come at it from a negative angle . . . and would probably end up with the kind of dull, prosaic sermonizing you were able to avoid. Mind if I steal the idea sometime?

  2. I did something similar in an eighth grade English class a couple years ago, though I wasn’t so sneaky in my role as devil’s advocate. We were reading The Pearl and examining poverty in the third world. I had them read two articles to prepare for a class discussion on the best way to combat third world poverty. The first was Time’s Person of the Year close-up on Bono and his fight for more development funding from the government. The second was a New York Times editorial by Paul Theroux bashing Bono’s level of understanding and his obsession with more government funding. Both were for more international development.
    While there were a good group of students who didn’t read the articles (particularly the Time article, they felt it was too long), it generated some great discussion, particularly from students who wouldn’t normally speak productively in class. I never hinted at where I stood on the topic and when they asked told them it didn’t matter. They were more comfortable because they knew they could say anything and it wouldn’t pit me against them.

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