Don't Tell Dad and Mom: What They're Reading at UC Irvine This Fall

Categories: OC Bookly
In his day job, Mr. Bibteaches required undergraduate Composition at UC Irvine,  where he works hard guiding students to read, write and think critically, to develop scholarly research and analysis skills and--you bet!--engage politically using their newfound civic literacy. Some deal! Despite announcing, unshyly, this divine mission to adults who ask what I teach, I am too often met with, first, the proud declaration "Oh, I hated college writing class!" and then, without a beat, "So, how are the kids at writing these days?" Sheesh. As if the kids--perhaps their own kids, or grandkids--are somehow different than the rest of us, different than them, these young people raised in their homes, their segregated schools, with their bullshit know-nothing politics, not to mention in their domestic sensory isolation units equipped only with television and computers, people who probably voted for Bush, twice (somebody did!) and oppose paying taxes to pay for public education. How are the kids writing? How are you writing, asshole?  Friends, with adults like this in charge of raising the childrens, it's a wonder, to crib from Paul Simon's "Kodachrome," anybody can think at all!

Beyond dealing with the foolishness of the fogies, many of whom haven't read a book in years and apparently didn't review their kids' homework, the larger (and fun) challenge of teaching a college writing class should be obvious to anybody. At least anybody who appreciates the work of teaching any kind of literacy--basic writing, research, civic engagement--to students (and, by extension, their parents) who are, like so much of our citizenry, estranged from these...on purpose, and by design. Most of my students have never read a newspaper or serious magazine book or film review, do not even seem to know that public radio even exists. That's not their fault. (And, by the way, they are immediately delighted to hear the news of a non-corporate public alternative to the crap they're used to.)

Likes public, and public radio, too.
To make it work you've got to think of teaching writing as, finally, teaching a foreign language: immersion, practice and, yes, application. And as training in intellectual self-defense, a vital personal skill considering, well, the assault on teachers' unions, the poor, education, the environment. See Corey Robin's excellent recent post, "Why Do People Hate Teachers Unions? Because They Hate Teachers".

Teachers bad. Unions bad. Public school bad.
Convincing students that the skills learned in a Composition class, of all places, is the way toward a better, fairer, more just society is a hard sell. But it is, of course the fun and potentially rewarding part, the reason many in academia persevere in the face of so much hostility to public education and teachers, collective bargaining, not to mention rampant anti-intellectualism, sports fanaticism, religion, technology pimps promoting their latest gizmos as "learning tools," the chimeric scourge of "activist professors" and, well, the culturally diminished practice of of reading.  

Yet persevere we do. Which is why, of course, writing courses are "hard."  Because thinking is hard.  "No pain, no gain," say the athletics coaches.  (Don't get me started!)  "No pain, no brain," I say. But ever so cheerfully, of course. Murdering ignorance is a good thing.

So, as a public (!) service for all those confused, passive-aggressive, condescending grown-ups who didn't like writing class yet expect, somehow, students to a) give a shit and b) magically become strong writer-thinker-citizens, here's a reading list for you, which just so happens to be what the kids will soon be reading--this week, in fact. Cut and paste, and stick on the fridge. Read these yourself, and then ask a student a serious question about public policy as discussed in all of these terrific books.

First, though, some background.  After a review committee approves them, Writing instructors at UCI choose one of these five fairly recent exemplary texts to use for the quarter, toward introducing students to the strategies, tropes, and formal expectations of research writing. These are not, it should be pointed out, scholarly texts.  They are popular reads, even bestsellers, each selected because they address an urgent public policy problem. They are well written, and often fun. They not only model good writing and research, but offer research topics students themselves can develop into questions, which lead to writing their own modest research essays on a related problem.      
Here, then, the "core texts" used by the Lecturers and Academic Student Employees (formerly "TAs") who teach the kids at UCI.  Starting next week. Since you asked! 

Life and death of health care
Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande.  Super-smart medical doctor who's written for The New Yorker, Gawande teaches at Harvard. He was on President Clinton's Health Care Task Force, and has become a leading critic of the "business model" of health care. Go figure.
Death of conservative teaching
The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.  Veteran education policy scholar, activist and advocate Ravitch is a turncoat, and the pro-corporate "standards" and "testing" crowd are really, really pissed that she tells the truth about the odious No Child Left Behind, which she initially went along with, and the effort to privatize education. Naturally, I'm teaching this one myself.  

She lives on
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  Great book, well-told story. This is a bestseller you've heard about and perhaps already read, about the cells taken, without her knowledge from a poor, semi-literate and until now anonymous woman whose body and story changed medical science. 

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What a bloody hot mess.


If this piece is the author's idea of a coherent essay, I understand why the college 'kids today' can't write -- or even think straight.


Now let's take a look at the content -- so far as it can be discerned. Very troubling is the claim that he (or other faculty) will 'teach' books. That implies that he is setting up his own interpretation of the material above what the author's have written, and certainly not letting the students discover their own interpretations of the authors' arguments, and develop their own critiques of the authors' logic and facts. Indeed the whole thing sounds like it came from the late 1960s, some bearded hippy treating his taxpayer funded course like a teach in. Even left-liberal professors today don't use this sort of language, and as someone with more than pacing with HIgher Ed, most take care to balance their reading lists beyond a 'radio debate'.



It's funny readying this with reference to Paul Simon. I mentioned him to a 40 yo woman recently and she'd never even heard of him. Young adults in the 90s are now middle aged, so there's more than a little generation gap here.


This is a sloppy article.  You are very negative.  You also make the assumption that adults who have an opinion different from your own are lazy or misinformed or don't bother to think.  Growing up involves learning about the world.  From many perspectives.  Then, you find your niche.  Don't bash those that came before you.  If you want change, use positive language.  People are turned off when you call them names.   "The foolishness of the fogies?"  Interesting.  Live a little -- only then you may see that it is not always advantageous to bite the hand that feeds you -- or that feeds that of your friends.  Additionally, your grammar is poor.


I teach writing too, and I respect what you're doing with your kids this fall. Still, I wonder how many people will read beyond the first paragraph of this article--even those who already agree with you, not to mention those who don't. I myself almost stopped reading because you came out swinging. (Calling your interlocutor "asshole" comes to mind here, but it's only the most obvious example.) It's a rhetorical point that I'm making, not a political one: you don't capture the goodwill of your audience in the first paragraph, and so they move on to someone else's article. If no one is reading you, how will you persuade them to think about what you're saying?


I was a bit taken aback by the tone of this article and the fact that, in my opinion, it is not well written. There are more than a few examples of sloppy writing which make the facts claimed more difficult to believe and the assertions made more difficult to accept.


One example is here: "Most of my students have never read a newspaper or serious magazine book or film review, do not even seem to know that public radio even exists. That's not their fault. (And, by the way, they are immediately delighted to hear the news of a non-corporate public alternative to the crap they're used to.)"


That is not what I would expect a University professor to be using as a model of good writing to support an argument. It is not simply the confusion generated by the use of a term such as "magazine book" [While the professor might perhaps be referring to collections of magazine articles published in book form, I presume he has simply forgotten a comma.]; the use of passive tense where an active tense would be more well suited; the double use of the word "even" which, while not technically improper, remains redundant and is lazy; raising an issue as to fault [not that of the student] which is unexplained and based on a claim that is unsupported [Do the students truly never read? I, for one, do not believe it, and this article does nothing to convince me otherwise. The students likely read text most often on a computer rather than paper.] or the improper ending of the sentence.  More significantly, it is the incessant use of pejorative words like "crap" in simplistic ways that attack the students, their parents, and, ultimately, the reader, that is distracting and undermines the argument.      


The point of the article is an important one. And I was curious and grateful to learn what the students are reading in such a course. But if the argument of the article is to be taken seriously, as it should be, then the article needs to be more well written than is the case here. Ironically, the article may thus support the argument being made within it, but perhaps not in the way it was intended. 


You certainly have a gift for stimulating someone to write with passion.  But from your piece, it seems to be based in hubris rather than on an ability to engage with thought.


I'm one of those parents...and I've put two children through UC...and am married to a school teacher.  To be a fogey because my beliefs are different than yours is rather insulting.  


"Anti-intellectual" seems to be a label for someone who disagrees with your own position rather than based on 'critical thinking'.  What you advocate is not about exposure to ideas, but is about indoctrination, expanding the 'generation gap' by discounting the ideas of one group and creating ad hominem attacks on whole groups of people.


Critical thinking should include respect for the thoughts and values of others.  Regrettably, your syllabus would seem to be deficient in the category.  Your own students should challenge your bias FOR anti-corporate values, secrecy ("don't tell your parents"), public service unions and NPR...along side the values that they grew up with.  I can be confident from your writing that there will be no such opportunity.

GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

 @Mitchell_Young Oh, please. If it were up to you, there'd be no higher education—this would be a land of gaba massa's and the coloreds...


 @khalp Khalp, you may need to read more carefully.  In the sentence you quote, the writer clearly refers to reviews of books or films published in newspapers or magazines.  Also, the writer's use of the passive "tense" (I think you mean voice) is perfectly clear here.  Many writing instructors discourage their students from using the passive voice because it tends to lead to ambiguous constructions.  Unfortunately, those instructors rarely work with the students long enough to take off the training wheels: that is, to explain that varying between the active and passive voice is a good way to avoid a monotonous style.

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