The Potential Within Disposable Television

Mentalist-web

What is it about The Mentalist that has captured America’s interest?  The show focuses on Patrick Jane, who works as a consultant to the California Bureau of Investigation – a fictional law enforcement agency somewhat akin to the state police.  The team that Jane works with is headed by Teresa Lisbon, played by Robin Tunney, and include Wayne Rigsby, Grace Van Pelt, and Kimball Cho.  For some reason, all of these characters tend to refer to one another by their last names almost exclusively.  The crimes that the team pursues are not always particularly vexing as mysteries or even particularly compelling.  And yet the series is a top ten hit – a megasuccess, really.  Why?

The focus is really on Patrick Jane as an investigator.  Jane is a variation on the trend of the detective of unusual gifts that has run amok on American television in the last decade or so – Monk, Vincent Donofrio’s character on Law & Order: Criminal Intent (and now Jeff Goldblum’s character), etc. etc. etc.  It’s a tradition that runs through Peter Falk’s Columbo to Nero Wolfe to Sherlock Holmes to Poe’s Daupin.

Jane is independently wealthy, having worked for many years as a psychic with a fabulously successful practice.  He had rich and famous clients, and was himself a well-known celebrity who would appear on television programs and support law enforcement efforts to solve particularly cases.  Why is he working for CBI?  Because one day on a television program that closely resembled “Oprah,” Jane belittled a serial killer named Red John.  That night, when he returned home, he found his wife and daughter brutally murdered by that same serial killer.  Distraught, destroyed, he has sought vengeance ever since and openly admits that the only reason he consults with CBI is to gain access to any information he can get on Red John.  The Red John storyline played out in a number of episodes during last year’s first season, but the case remains open and the identity of the killer remains unknown.

One of the ironies that makes the show interesting is that Jane has no psychic powers, as he openly admits.  He claims that being a psychic is a scam and that his success was really due to his strong ability to read people, and the signals that they send, very closely.  (USA’s Psych, which also has a purported psychic as its lead character, also challenges the existence of psychic powers.)  As a result of his success at reading people, Jane has something over an oversized ego and he can charitably be called cocky (and less charitably deemed arrogant).  However, he’s an astute observer of people and scenes and his means of detection leads to the solution of the crime as often as, if not more than, “traditional” means do, as represented in the work of the team leader, Lisbon.

As played by Simon Baker, Jane is handsome, confident, and even charismatic, with an easy charm and ability to win people over.  He’s very likable and he can be thoughtful and kind to the members of the team, but at the same time his arrogance sometimes leads him to put them in uncomfortable situations in order to get what he wants.  What he wants, more than anything, is to get Red John.  Individual cases don’t seem of much concern to him and while he feels affection for his team members, he has also more than once displayed a willingness to walk away from them or to leave them behind in order to get what he wants.

Throughout the first season, he was given pretty much free reign to do what he wants in CBI and on particular cases (pretty much) because of his success in solving crimes.  Interestingly, though, the second season began with that freedom taken away.  Oversight of the Red John case is no longer with Lisbon’s team, and so Jane does not have access to all of the information on the case that he had earlier.  The new case officer, Sam Bosco (played very well by the excellent Terry Kinney), finds Jane to be a charlatan at best and has no plans to share any information whatsoever with him.

This will be the recurring storyline of the season, clearly, marked with the level of progress Bosco makes with the case in relation to Jane’s frustration with being shut out of it and his resultant feeling of helplessness.  He is driven by the sense of guilt he feels for baiting Red John and the horrendous price he has had to pay for that in terms of losing his wife and daughter. This season promises to ask a new question, “What will happen to Jane when his central motivation is mitigated by his inability to pursue the case that drives all of his actions?  How will he function?  How will he find a way to go after Red John anyway?” Jane is a shell of a man, really, with few attachments to other people.  He finds it easy to charm others because he does not care about them.  They are merely means to the end that he desires – revenge against Red John.

But while Jane is a shell of a man, he does still have some feelings.  In a particularly compelling episode last season, the team investigated a murder in which a psychic was implicated.  Jane repeatedly challenged and belittled her work and her “powers” as false.  As a means of solving the crime he gathered all of the witnesses in a type of séance and had the psychic lead them all in a ritual that was ultimately a ruse.  In the process of unmasking the killer, Jane also undercut the credibility of the psychic in front of all of the others, positioning himself as the ultimate arbiter of reason and authority.  It was a clever move, one that befit him both as a personality and also as a detective.  He likes to employ reason, observation, and logic to decode that which others cannot, and he likes to look good and gain authority in the process.  But in an interesting twist at the end of the episode, the psychic relays a message to Jane from his dead wife and daughter, information that only they could know, information that he has never asked anyone for.  The episode ends with him sobbing, clearly relieved at what the psychic has told him, but also shaken by the recognition that there may be something out there that does not hold to reason and logic.  There may be information that he cannot access and control.  He may not be all that he imagines himself to be, and he may not be able to enact revenge on the man who has badly wounded him.

Perhaps this is why people like The Mentalist.  For such an easy to digest, by the book drama, it somehow has a tinge of complexity that keeps us coming back for more.  The tension that the show enacts between doubt and certainty, between power and vulnerability, between control and chaos, holds the feeling of a deep reality.  Who knew that such a disposable television program might contain such multitudes?

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When “Troubling” Isn’t a Strong Enough Word

beyonce-single-ladies_01

As a critic, I have to ask myself, “What to do with ‘Single Ladies?’”  If there is a song in the public consciousness right now, almost a full year after it was originally released, this has got to be it. In the past two days, I’ve watched the television program “Glee” have all sorts of fun with the song, watched a baby dance in front of the video, and seen a really groovy cover of the song by Pomplamoose in which they mock the lyrics in the bridge of the song as “so bad” that they skip that part of the song.  (See it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIr8-f2OWhs)

“Single Ladies” was a smash hit in 2008, as part of Beyonce’s album I Am…Sasha Fierce.  The song, it’s fair to say, with its insistent handclaps and repeated chorus, is irresistibly catchy. The lyrics tell the story of a woman who is speaking, postbreakup, to the man who chose not to ask her to marry him.  She is telling him that he had his chance, and that he shouldn’t get upset if another man is showing interest in her.

Because of the main thrust of the lyrics, most critics have read the song as having to do with female empowerment.  The speaker is feeling strong, sexy, desired, and is no longer despondent over the man for whom she had “cried for three good years.”  She tells him that she “can care less what you think.”

But there are a few oddities to the lyrics that I’d like to point out.  One is the odd bridge in which the speakers says, “Don’t treat me to the things of the world/I’m not that kind of girl/Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve.”  Based on most of the previous lyrics to the song, this sentiment is patently untrue.  The bridge continues, “Here’s a man that makes then takes me/And delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond/Pull me into your arms, say I’m the one you own/If you don’t, you’ll be alone/And like a ghost I’ll be gone.”

Let’s leave the horrible writing aside for a moment.  There is no female empowerment in these lines; in fact, it’s the opposite.  The speaker lays herself out as something to own – in a rather stunning turn, she commodifies herself. Her commodification here, though, takes me back into the lyrics of the rest of the song wherein she repeatedly sings, “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.”  What is the “it” that she sings of?  Her finger?  But why would someone “like” her finger?  The much more sensible reading of these lines is that she is singing of her body itself, which is the true object of focus in the song.  She’s out in the club shopping her body to the men there, including her ex.  I find her representation and commodification of her body more than troubling.  It’s pathetic.

The video for the song only takes this further.  Although “Single Ladies” recently won the MTV Award for “Video of the Year,” Taylor Swift’s win in the category of “Best Female Video” – which Kanye West interrupted to speak out on Beyonce’s behalf – is much more in the public consciousness, and I would wager that most people think that Beyonce didn’t actually win the “Video of the Year” award.  But she did.

What about the video itself?  It’s rather straightforward.  Beyonce dances with two other women, all dressed in black leotards, against very plain contrasting backgrounds of dark gray and white.  The simplicity of the concept essentially privileges the choreography as the main focus of the performance.  As many have noted, the choreography owes an obvious debt to Gwen Verdon’s performance on the Ed Sullivan show in the late 1960s and to the choreography of Bob Fosse.  It also calls to mind movement from tap, jazz, hiphop, and j-setting – a style connected to African-American gay clubs in Atlanta.  What does all this look like?  I’d argue that it’s a performance that, like the song itself, puts Beyonce’s body front and center.  The viewer’s eyes are on her and on her single status – the dance rather famously repeatedly flashes a left hand bereft of a wedding ring.  Beyonce continually slaps her hips and passes her hands across her body.  This is a sexualized body and an available body.

Why is this the representation of herself that Beyonce chooses to display?  She’s commercially successful to a huge degree, wealthy, and apparently happily married to the just-as-commercially successful Jay-Z.  Why would she put herself, or her body, up for sale?  (I used to ask this same question about Madonna, but eventually grew tired of asking it over and over again…)  Beyonce has financial independence.  She isn’t a woman lacking in power, but she continues to represent herself in her songs and her videos as if she is.

I’m not qualified to comment on the skill involved in her dancing – she could be great, for all I know about the technicalities of her performance – but why does she feel compelled to bare her body and shake her hips and her ass for all of the world to observe.  At the end she holds up to the camera her wedding ring – it’s gigantic, and seems to contradict that line in the bridge that when it comes to “the things of the world/I’m not that kind of girl.”  She smiles, laughs, and takes great pleasure in it and what she has – presumably in her career, in her marriage, in her life.

But again, then why does she sing these songs and offer these performances?  Does anyone else find this troubling?  Is “troubling” a strong enough word?

You’re better off watching the kid from “Glee” perform it:

He’s single and pretty much lacking all sociopolitical power as a gay teenage boy. And his use of j-setting seems more appropriate than Beyonce’s.

Perhaps You Know the Type

He’s a scholar arrived for a dinner party, an invited lecturer the next day at a well-respected university. The dinner has been arranged as a welcome and almost all of the attendees are themselves academics.

He’s friendly in his attempts to ask at least one question of everyone there and duly complimentary to the hosts for their fine meal and excellent after-dinner drinks. He is, in many ways, a charming dinner guest with impeccable table manners and an assured yet relaxed demeanor. In many ways, it’s a perfectly lovely evening.  In all good conscience, how could someone complain?

Well, for one, he tends to be more than just a bit of a name-dropper: “Ruth at the National Museum,” “Anne at Duke,” “Sam at Berkeley.” Perhaps you know the type: he’s apparently on a first-name basis with every major scholar you’ve heard of. Not only does he know them, it seems, but he feels comfortable delineating their character traits or professional situations, such as “she’s really difficult to work with, of course” or “It’s really not much of a situation to be in there. Things aren’t good overall at the university and they haven’t been very supportive.”

From how he talks, he is clearly an insider. He gives off the air of someone who went to school with this one, or was on that grant with that one, or spent that week at Dartmouth with so-and-so, and on and on…  But at some point in the evening, perhaps over those lovingly prepared tubers your hostess bought especially at the local farmer’s market in honor of his arrival, you ask of yourself, “An insider to whom, or to what?” Well, apparently, to pretty much everyone who is anyone, and to all of the key current debates in academia. With all the close relationships he has formed with so many important scholars, as well as with so many prominent institutions, it’s a wonder he has time to get any work done.

Oh, but he has, and he’s more than happy to tell you about it. “I started the first something-something program in the country”, “When I was at Yale…”, “When I was speaking at Champaign-Urbana…”, “I just spoke at Maryland…”, “My article on…”, “I was asked to be a consultant on…” and on it goes.

Some things he seems to get curiously wrong, such as the definition of irony, which apparently began in the 1950s (!), and some things he just doesn’t know, such as who A-Rod is.    Now, baseball can be a very boring game for those who never really played or who were never introduced to it in any real way, and certainly no one needs to be a baseball fan, or even passingly familiar with the game, to be honest.  But, I must say, the lack of cultural currency in not knowing who Alex Rodriguez is just seems to me to be a bit beyond the pale, even for the aesthete that he clearly is.  That’s just part of being tuned in to the broader culture in the most basic of ways.    Alex Rodriguez makes $25 million just playing baseball each year.  Even elitist academic snobs should know who he is.

None of this, by the way, is meant to impugn the quality of his work. To give him his due, he seems to be an accomplished scholar who has earned a number of prestigious fellowships and different positions at two highly prestigious universities. About the quality of his work, I cannot speak, for it is not in a field that I’m particularly familiar with; nor was I able to attend his lunchtime seminar nor his late-afternoon lecture.  I was a guest at the welcome dinner and pleased to be included in the evening. This is really meant to address how he interacted with other scholars in his field at the institution to which he had been invited to speak.

I am writing this some time afterward.  The lecture went off smoothly, the visit was a success with the department and the university.  Things have changed in his professional situation, but I have never really forgotten this evening, which our host and hostess worked hard to pull off and in many ways went quite very nicely.

How much of it was insecurity? Although he had secured a series of fellowships for a number of years and he had published a number of articles, he had not produced a book and, at the time, did not have a university position. Not that he wasn’t sure to let us know that he was “in conversations with University A and University B.”  No, he was sure to drop that in to the conversation, but after a few hours, one was left wondering:

Most academics have all been in this situation, to varying degrees.  Was his behavior, his bravado, a way to shield a sense of inadequacy? Or was he just something of a jerk?

Nothing but the Truth?

Who would have thought The Ethicist would have this effect on me?  I’m up in arms!

I’ve read Randy Cohen’s “Ethicist” column in the NY Times Magazine for quite some time now, and it makes for fun shared Sunday morning commentary with my wife about how we would respond to his queries.  It turns out that Cohen also writes a blog for the online Times, entitled “Moral of the Story.”  And this week he strayed into cultural criticism, which was something of a mistake, I’m sorry to say.

In a post earlier this week that he called “Good Cops, Bad Cops, and Bad Emmys” (http://ethicist.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/14/good-cops-bad-cops-and-bad-emmys/), Cohen writes about some of the nominees for this year’s Emmy awards that are “built around the Hero Cop.”  (He lists “Saving Grace,” “The Closer,” “C.S.I.,” “Life on Mars,” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” as the shows under consideration.)  He claims that these shows perpetuate a “fundamental falsehood” and that awarding these shows both endorses and promulgates a lie.

The “falsehood” that Cohen objects to is that the portrayals of the police in these shows is not particularly realistic.  On the face of it, this is rather silly.  Of course these shows are not particularly realistic – what woman wears to work the tight t-shirts that the women sport on ALL of the C.S. I. shows?  What man would put up with Brenda, the deputy chief portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick, who is married to the ever-suffering Fritz?  Grace, on “Saving Grace,” sees and speaks with an angel!

In laying out his logic for his position, though, Cohen goes further than just saying that some of these shows are not “realistic” and instead proclaims an aesthetics that bears inspection. He writes that “to be worthy of esteem, these shows must in a broad sense be truthful – and they are not.”  What does “truthful” mean to Cohen?  He defines it in the next paragraph: “fiction, if set on this planet, must present something we earthlings recognize as plausible.”

What really tears him up about these shows is that they offer a highly biased and implausible portrayal of policemen and policewomen, as well as police work.  Again, to him I would say, “No kidding.”  But I would also want to push back at his thinking, because plausible is a horrible definition for “truthful” when it comes to narrative fiction.  In fact, I would say that “plausibility” might be one of the most outlandish restrictions for narrative fiction that I’ve ever read.

Why must narrative fiction be plausible?  Cohen bases his argument on the foundational verity of this claim, but there are any number of problems with it.  First, who determines what is plausible – the viewer or the writer?  Do we need a certain percentage of agreement among the general audience to reach a final verdict?  What do individuals base their determination of plausibility on?  Personal experience?  Something they’ve read?  Other television programs?  Second, what gets excluded when you set plausibility as the minimum standard for “truthfulness?”  We’d probably have to throw “Lost” out, and also shows like “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files,” even if they didn’t fully take on the claim of science fiction or fantasy but instead purported to be taking place in the world we actually live in.  What about a show like “24?”  Is that plausible?  Yes and no.  What about “ER?”  What about “The Sopranos?”  Would a mob boss really go to a therapist?  Pretty doubtful.

Heck, one could easily argue that no television is actually plausible, in that life so rarely fits into the 60-minute format.  (I suppose that this might bring “24” back into the conversation, though they squeeze much more into 60 minutes than I think actually happens in that time, and I’ve always wondered what’s going on in the show during the commercial breaks…)

“Truth” is a tricky word, so when you say that shows must be “truthful,” you’re entering into a pretty complicated realm.  Whose truth?  Yours, mine, Hugo Chavez’s?  Or are you imagining some sort of absolute truth?  (Pandora’s box alert!)  As my friend Sarah Freligh said when I was speaking to her about Cohen’s piece, “believability” would be a better word.  If he had claimed that these shows are often lacking in “believability,” then he would have had a much stronger argument (see the above comments on individual shows!).  In fact, there wouldn’t have been a lot to disagree with.

It’s more than fair for viewers and critics to ask if a show, or a character, or a situation is believable.  But asking this takes them into a much different set of criteria of judgment than narrative fiction.  In a follow-up to his post, (“More Thoughts on Hero Cops and Award Shows,” http://ethicist.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/more-thoughts-on-hero-cops-and-awards-shows/) Cohen writes that “the problem with these shows is not that they’re fiction; it’s that they’re too often bad fiction.”  Fair enough sir, but you should be basing this aesthetic judgment on a criteria of aesthetics that have to do with the making of art, and “believability” makes for a much sounder basis for some of those criteria than “plausibility” does.

By the way, “In Treatment” was the best show of the year.  But more on that in another post!

That Wasn’t a Dingo Who Stole That Baby

Two things that I noticed about last night’s Mad Men that I haven’t really seen anyone mention yet.

Where is Dennis’s baby?  Let’s go back to that same scene when Don goes to the hospital to visit Betty and Gene.  At the beginning of the scene in the hallway, Don is walking along, carrying a bouquet of flowers of Betty, and recognizes Dennis as he comes toward him, pushing his wife forward in a wheelchair.  Dennis is somewhat smiling down at his wife, and she seems to be smiling as well, though she also seems to be somewhat in a haze.  Don gives Dennis a tight smile, perhaps remembering their time together in the area where men wait during labor and Dennis’s bottle of Red Label scotch that they had shared.  When Dennis sees Don coming toward him in the hallway, though, he breaks his smile and looks much more sober and then looks away.  Don himself looks down, apparently at Dennis’s wife, and all of a sudden gets a somewhat quizzical look on his face.   What has he recognized?

There has been already quite a bit written about last night’s episode, about the dream sequences and the repeated images of foreboding and death.  Many people, as they watched, seemed to feel that this was a harbinger of something happening during Betty’s delivery of Gene.  But in the waiting room, the nurse comes to speak to Dennis, not Don, to alert him that there are complications.  Dennis tells her to do whatever they need to, and later she informs him that he is a father of a baby boy.  But we never see this boy, and in the hallway, the baby is conspicuously missing from the scene.  It seems to me that this baby was the one in danger, and this baby was the one who died.  Those images of foreboding were less for Don’s son, then, than for Dennis’s.

A sartorial connection between Don and Pete: it seems to me that the tie that Don wears when he goes to visit Betty and Gene at the hospital, carrying the bouquet, is the same tie, or one strikingly similar, to the tie that Pete was wearing when he met with Duck and Peggy and when he spoke with Hollis in the elevator.  What to make of this?  I’m not yet sure, though the connections between Don and Pete have been emerging more and more as the show progresses.  They were the two characters who were most noticeably uncomfortable during Roger Sterling’s blackface performance a few weeks back, they both part their hair in the same manner, they were the two who went to California last season, and they seem to be the two who are most often chosen to represent Sterling Cooper in public settings or with clients.  The decision to dress them in the same tie only visually reinforces what is happening in the storyline – there’s a deep connection between these two characters, but one we haven’t fully seen exploited.  They are ambitious, talented in their own departments, and quick on their feet.  Where will all this lead?  I’m not sure, but the links between the two shouldn’t really shock us: Pete knows who Don really is, after all, and he’s one of the very few who do.

Weeds and the Absent Father

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We finally got around to watching the last two episodes of Weeds the other night, and they made for interesting viewing – especially Shane’s spasm of violence.  “Spasm” seems the right word to me, because there is something in this character that seems out of control.  His smashing of Pilar with the croquet mallet is foreshadowed by his act of threatening with a knife the two young men who are taking advantage of the drug-addled Adelita.  While the framing of Nancy’s conversation with Pilar does not include enough distance to see Shane nearby with the croquet mallet, and therefore it is a shock when he first strikes her, it doesn’t ultimately surprise that the boy that Silas has dubbed a “badass” is the one who has ultimately turned violent.

Much of this past season, and the last two episodes in particular, has focused on Nancy’s parenting choices in taking the boys into the world of drug-dealing. Silas took naturally to this world, but developed a specialty not as a dealer but as a grower.  In the past season he went legitimate, earning a license to sell marijuana to people who were legally qualified to buy it for medical purposes.  While the store went under, it was not due to his skill as a grower nor as a businessman.  Silas has grown into a mature and honorable young man – well, at least sort of.  He tends to do the right thing.

Shane, of course, is a holy mess.  It’s not a shock really – it’s been coming for a long time.  Speaking to his dead father, wanting to go to Pittsburgh for reasons that no one else really understood, forming an alliance with the groovy and gothy dark-haired girls who liked to get high, get drunk, and have sex: these were overt signs for his mother, who was obviously busy with her own problems.  He has no father figure to speak of.  Peter Scottson – the first man that his mother married following the death of his biological father, Judah – had real potential to bring some discipline to Shane but died pretty quickly (and in a rather ugly way).  Shane’s Uncle Andy, played by Justin Kirk, is a lot of fun to hang around with, but is almost just as much of a mess as Shane is, and pretty much the same age emotionally.

With his decision to sell drugs this season, his willingness to sell to a teacher and the subsequent beating of the teacher who made the mistake of stealing his pot, Shane entered new territory of the damaged.   He even formed a close relationship with Ignacio, one of the truly bonifide psychopaths on the show.  It was as if he had located the worst father figures possible, and embraced him.

Ultimately Shane turned away from Ignacio, after watching him beat up a man hitting golf balls at a driving range, but by then he had been introduced to violence as a way of life.  It wasn’t a surprise narratively, therefore, when he was shot with a bullet aimed for his mother.  The symbolism was a bit thick at that point.  He consistently rejected Esteban as a viable father figure, even though his mother Nancy marries him to protect Shane from further violence.  (This isn’t a bad choice, for Esteban is pretty useless as a father figure, as evidenced by his lack of knowledge of Adelita’s drug addiction and his inability to handle the news of that addiction.)

Soon after getting shot, Shane told his brother that he was embracing the pain of the wound, that he liked it on a visceral level.  The slippage into the violence in the last two episodes was inevitable.

Just after the episode ended, my wife told me that the actor who plays Shane, Alexander Gould, did the voice of Nemo in the film Finding Nemo.  How perfect.  It’s a bit of forced crosstextual reading, but the boy who played Nemo and who lost his Dad (albeit in the short-term) eventually grows into Shane, a boy who loses his Dad, Judah (this one for good).  And how perfect is the name “Shane” for this character?  The film of that name is yet another text with some significantly crossed signals when it comes to father figures.

Shane has an absent father, and the choices that Nancy has made since Judah’s death have been one long series of poor one after poor one, always driving her family onward but always ultimately circumscribing the options that her children will ultimately have.  The look on Shane’s face after he whacks Pilar is frightening in its blandness and lack of affect.  But it shouldn’t surpise, not really.  Just how long has it been coming for Shane to really lose it?  In the realm of Weeds, it may have been inevitable once Judah died.

An Open Letter to Stanley Fish

Dear Professor Fish –

I have very much enjoyed reading your recent three-part piece in the online version of the NY Times entitled, “What Should Colleges Teach?”:

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/what-should-colleges-teach/

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/what-should-colleges-teach-part-2/

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/07/what-should-colleges-teach-part-3/

I recognize that it is part of your role as an opinion columnist for the Times to provoke response, and based on the number of responses to these pieces – numbering over a thousand at last count – you have certainly succeeded in generating conversation and controversy.

I find myself mostly sympathetic to your argument that in too many undergraduate writing courses the emphasis is on teaching specific content that is of interest to the person teaching the students, and not enough on the skills involved in successful writing.   In my experience teaching as a graduate student at a major research university, much of the teaching of writing there focused on issues of content over issues of writing.  Further, I can add that, based on my ten years teaching composition at a liberal arts college, including six years of experience overseeing the freshmen writing program here, it is a challenge to convince faculty members – both from the English Department as well as from other departments – that the concepts that they are introducing to students in composition courses are secondary to the writing skills that they are meant to help students develop further.

However, my overall experiences over the last sixteen years have also taught me something else that you do not account for in any way: the teaching of writing at a research university has very little to do with the teaching of writing at most colleges.  The primary teachers of composition at research universities are graduate students who tend to focus their teaching on their research interests. While I commend you and those colleagues of yours at the prestigious research universities where you have taught for taking on the difficult work of teaching composition, I would point out that the great majority of your colleagues at those universities, and the great majority of professors at virtually all research universities, do not actually teach composition courses.

You are right that graduate students should pay more attention to the teaching of writing and less to their research interests in those courses, but surely we should recognize that there are systematic reasons for them to do so.  It can help them to continue to focus on their research and continue to work on their dissertations, helping them make progress on their Ph.D. while gaining valuable teaching experience.  This positions them better for the brutal job market they will soon enter.  Moreover, there is no incentive for them to change – after all, their advisors aren’t teaching writing anyway!  You seem to want them to change because it would be better for the undergraduates, but it certainly wouldn’t be better for the graduate students, and the universities are offering them no reason to change (especially because universities won’t allow graduate students to unionize and join forces for more equitable pay, benefits, and security).  Generally speaking, I think it is fair to say that the system at these types of institutions, at least in relation to the teaching of undergraduates, is broken.

But what about the teaching of writing at other schools?  At most colleges (or even universities) that are not research-focused – that is to say, at the great majority of institutions of higher learning in the United States – graduate students are not the primary composition instructors.

While there are some adjunct professors at these institutions who teach composition who have not yet completed their dissertation, most graduate students locate teaching positions at their research universities.  The majority of instructors are full-time or part-time professors who are dedicated to teaching as a profession.

This dedication means a different type of schedule than for those professors at research universities, where the production of knowledge or critical perspectives is central to the mission of the institution and the teaching load is primarily two courses each semester.  While there are some professors who teach at colleges with a two-course teaching load, the large majority teach at least three classes, or even four or five.  And at most colleges, teaching composition is one of the expectations for an English professor, sometimes more than once class a semester.  (While this can lead to less prep time, it also means double the papers to respond to.)  At most colleges, demonstrated excellence in teaching is a primary requirement for tenure and promotion.  It is valued certainly more than original scholarship, though that is expected as well, and service to the college is another major area of focus for faculty at such schools.  Time expectations are enormous, in other words, for junior faculty especially, but really for most of the faculty teaching composition courses.

You have delineated how you have taught writing throughout your teaching career, often taking on extra loads, asking the faculty at the great majority of colleges and universities to take on extra seems problematic, to say the least.  With their teaching loads, most of them are already overworked, and at a fraction of the salary that their colleagues at research universities receive, colleagues who do not have to teach these time-consuming composition courses.  Adjunct faculty members tend to have to shuttle back and forth from school to school and have no time to take on more work, especially at the pay scale that most colleges and universities offer them.  In what you write about teaching composition, you don’t account for the role of adjunct faculty, a striking omission considering just how many adjuncts are actually the ones who teach composition classes throughout the country.

So while I don’t actually disagree that much with you about a pedagogical approach to composition classes that privileges writing skills over specific content, I have serious reservations about your recognition of who teaches the majority of composition courses to undergraduates in this country.  Your focus is almost exclusively on the pedagogy of teaching writing at elite research universities – Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, etc.  But in doing so, you do not consider where most of the students who are seeking an undergraduate degree attend school: community colleges, regional colleges and universities, online universities such as the University of Phoenix.  The economics of teaching at these institutions – and here I use economics to refer to issues of salary, teaching load, and time – is radically different than those of most research universities.  It is emboldening to hear about the choices you have made to teach writing as part of your commitment to undergraduate education.  But it should be noted that for the vast majority of professors out there, choice doesn’t have anything to do with it.