Probiotics for Composition-Health?
Building an Ecology of Memoir Writing and Blended Learning
Julie Daoud, Ph.D., Thomas More College, Department of English

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A Tough Row to Hoe: There is No How Without a What

One of my colleagues despaired when I mentioned to him that I was replacing the Brontes and the Brownings on my syllabus with a range of contemporary memoirs: Eric Irivuzumugabe’s My Father, Maker of the Trees (2010), Greg Mortenson’s Stones Into Schools (2010) Joe Beagant’s Rainbow Pie (2011) and Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man (2010).  We were having one of those banyan-tree conversations as we wended across the campus green on a balmy March afternoon.  His matter-of-fact, collegial tone hinted avuncular when I asked him if he’d ever read any of the oft-vilified popular literature that I was reading with my students.  Clearly, my preference for teaching memoir rather than canonical literature had jounced a limb with him: A social sciences professor, he is familiar with the popular genre.  His tacit depracation of memoir-writing betrayed what I perceived to be a guardedness against popular “sociological” writers—writers who craft stories about groups of people—yet not genuine ethnographies—books that unfold in not-so-“academic” ways.  He decried:  “Haven’t yet, and don’t expect to anytime soon.”

To hold footing in the banyan, I resisted the temptation to agitate on behalf of the memoir genre; instead, I proposed what I thought would be a less overtly controversial topic, one that I expected we agreed upon: the mounting administrative expectation to incorporate more emerging technologies in our classroom practices.  In my mind, this topic represented some low-hanging fruit for an amicable parting.  After all, my colleague—and, dear friend—is the driver of a bumper-sticker-covered 1970s VW-bus.  A southerner, he is proficient in email, yet resolves most work-related matters by “calling-on” colleagues.  And, unlike most of the campus population who carry ear-buds and MP3 devices, he is still listening to Bob Marley on his 12 inch LPs.  

Averse to conflict, I waxed poetic about general observations about higher education’s prioritizing of fiscal profits and short-term convenience over the life-long critical thinking skills.  But my garden-variety observations grew into a tangle of thistle-like vines as I launched into the story of how, just that morning, I’d learned that nine faculty on our campus had been invited by the Dean’s Office to transform their traditional core courses into long-distance learning courses.  I exempted myself from any personal interest in moderating such a virtual classroom;  but I admitted to feeling a bit “passed-over” as I hadn’t been among the recruits considered for the pilot group.  With a sigh of ambivalence mixed with disdain, I took a vatic (and what I thought might be conciliatory) position as I moved toward closure on our talk:  “Long-distance learning is not for me.  Besides, when it comes to good teaching, there is no how without a what.

My anecdote and opining did nothing to restore the balance between us.  Rather than secure our footing, my segue just presented another apple of discord.  As such, my colleague offered one cryptic quip before retreating into his bell-bottom blue mini-bus:  “Renounce technology and you’ll have a tough row to hoe.” 

I couldn’t ignore this admonition.  (An amateur gardener, I realize that sometimes rototilling the soil can pay off.  Yet, I prefer the simplicity and calm of bamboo shoots in water to the challenge of plowing a rock-hard garden bed.)  Along  my commute home, I pondered my colleague’s cautionary retort.  I knew that I needed to commit to some serious deliberations when it came to planning for the fall semester, my next opportunity to teach a course on memoir writing.  I would need to go beyond professorial “intuition” as I redefined the what and the how for the course.   It dawned on me that if I wanted smart growth among my students, I would need to devote myself to the sprawl of contemporary debate and research on 21st century teaching and learning in higher education.  Only then could I  deliberately guide and support learning for my students.  In other words, I needed time to more carefully formulate a vision for the content and pedagogical approaches that would inform teaching in the upcoming semester. 


Admittedly, there has been much controversy about replacing canonical literary selections with what some describe as the trendy, popular genre of the memoir.  But from my experiences piloting memoir in the composition classroom over the past semester, I have come to see the substitution as one that builds meaning for students.  As Megan Brown contends in her article, "The Memoir as Provocation: A Case for ‘Me Studies’ in Undergraduate Classes, ” contemporary memoir writing requires that students “engage with the contexts in which they operate, such as social relationships, environments, conventions, and expectations” (126).   In other words, by integrating memoir into a curriculum designed to teach cogent writing  and critical thinking, students become active learners; students become more adept readers and writers because the readings are both accessible and relevant.  The shift away from conventional readings, I believe, is one possibility for reaching our millennial student population; memoir writing can, in some cases, galvanize active learning and can serve to restore mindful practice and civic participation in the broader communities.  This is not to say that the Brontes or the Brownings won’t provide a medium for students to learn.  However, the very immediacy and viscerality of the content of real-life narratives offers an intimacy with literature that enables students to engender the questions that Garber sees as the root of education.  So, this breach with my colleague was one that I reasoned, was not a cause for misgivings about what I wanted students to read as far as course content: the what that memoir offered my students was, after all, a very different what that he was working toward addressing in his classes in the social sciences.  We could, with our respective epistemological systems, agree to differences in our valuation of memoir-writing.

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