Blog: On Cheating

I've decided to start a blog. I'll share thoughts about writing and composition and school-often very subjective or even personal. My goal is to post something more often than every month-but less often than every week.

I welcome responses. Perhaps my thoughts can start some conversations. Sometimes I'll respond, but it may not always seem feasible or appropriate to do so. (Have you noticed an insidious habit that sometimes creeps into our mode of teaching?-the habit of having to say something in response to every student comment? This creates a culture where "all conversation has to go through the teacher"-which means the teacher is exerting more than necessary control-and often limiting the energy in the room. It was not till late that I noticed myself falling into this.)

I am proposing a theme for my first series of posts. It may sound odd, but my starting theme will be "cheating." As I look back over my work, it seems to me that very often I've worked out an easier way or shortcut for doing something. I seem to have an impulse to avoid doing things the "right way"-which is usually the hard way or the time consuming way or the frustrating way. I'm a little bemused to look back and see this theme, but really it's an instinct for finding ways to do things that are easier and less stressful than the way you're "supposed" to do them or the way we're taught to do them. My wife thinks it's perverse of me to frame this as "cheating," but somehow I seem to like to give a negative frame or lens for what I like. (The word "bad" has somehow come to have positive connotations for me.)

Once I notice this theme of cheating, I look back see lots of instances. Some are major and large-like using speech instead of writing (avoiding the difficult task of "writing" and using the easy process of "speaking" instead-using easy spoken language for writing). Some instances are very small-like introducing a quotation without a "proper lead in". Handbooks and teachers seem to ask students to go to a lot of trouble or find the right formula for bringing in a quotation. I don't see what's wrong with just dropping it in (for example, "Here's Louis Menand on this topic: [and then just plop in the quoted passage"])

It's true that everyday speech tends to be loose and rambling; it often doesn't bear down and do hard focused work. But somehow throughout my career, I've wanted to use the spoken register for hard focused and organized academic thinking. I don't see why the spoken register has to be loose and rambling. But I think readers have often accused my writing of being less organized and less focused on the work of thinking because the register is speechy. (I remember an important talk I once gave. Afterwards someone said "I love how you can just give a talk where you are making it up as you go along." But in fact I had busted my ass to work out and plan and organize my thinking. And I did follow the planned train of thinking. But somehow she didn't see my care and organization because it sounded like impromptu speech. I didn't speak in finished whole sentences. From sentence to sentence (or phrase to phrase or nonsentence to nonsentence) it was informal; But it was a very organized train of thought-and a good one, I'd say. But she couldn't see this because the texture seemed like impromptu speech.

At the time, I didn't consciously realize this, but my implicit goal was (and all along this has been my goal) to show that informal speech can do hard intellectual focused work-even academic work. (Victor Vitanza once invited me to edit a volume of PRE/TEXT and I wanted to show that personal expressive writing could do academic work. Spring/Summer 1990). There's some wonderful writing there.

I guess it's not surprising that I've had this relationship to language. When I wrote my first book about writing (Writing Without Teachers, 1973), I wasn't aware of composition as a field. I hadn't read any journals or been to any conferences (though I think I'd read something by Ken Macrorie-which didn't help me pull up my academic socks). I wasn't trying to write to professionals, I felt myself trying to stand on a mountain top and speak to the whole world. Amazingly presumptuous, but this was the '60s (for the '60s extended into the '70s).

So I was just trying to talk to everyone. I was not part of any composition community. But in addition, I remember a definite feeling of being tired of not being heard-angry even. I'd felt this at MIT when I would speak up in meetings or even informally to colleagues. I couldn't speak my thoughts with any clarity or power. (My first stint at MIT was 1960 to '63. I had dropped out of grad school at Harvard.) I had the definite sense of not being heard. Admittedly this wasn't true at Franconia College where I was one of 5 founding faculty. We taught an interdisciplinary double credit course as a team. I remember writing memos to my colleagues (typing on purple ditto masters and running them off). I wrote about the texts we were all teaching. I'd had 3 years college teaching at MIT (more than any of the others) and I'd had an elite education. In fact I felt a certain authority. It was a great situation for writing ("exigency" as they like to say in rhetoric) and in fact I did feel like I was heard.

My larger point here is that the spoken register doesn't have to have "mistakes" or be long winded or chatty or digressive; it doesn't have to dance around the real work that needs doing; it can dig in and do hard academic thinking. But to many people the spoken register itself-being "talky on paper"-disqualifies it for good hard work. Here by way of illustration are a couple of examples of how copy editors have fixed my MS after it' been accepted for publication.

-who has a strong sense of changed to who retains a deep conviction that -always comes with changed to is always accompanied by [these 2 used in 5-intonation units] -when I dropped out of graduate school changed to when I interrupted my graduate education -I started out just writing to aid my memory changed to At first I wanted only to aid my memory -[About a teacher I am interviewing and quoting] he sometimes talks about students as though he doesn't give a damn about them changed to . . . as if they meant nothing to him

Let me end with the larger theme here. The "proper" way to do things in the academic world (or even the wider intellectual bookish world) seems to require "proper language." But notice how this required language often functions to exclude those without privilege-those who didn't grow up in a household with lots of literacy and writing. In such homes, the feeling in the air for kids was, "Of course you can good school work. We'll get you started. Even our dinner table conversations will help you with school." (Shirley Brice Heath shows how middle class families are constantly helping small children be ready for school. Incessantly they ask "What is the name of this?" and "Can you explain how this works?" All this questioning gives explicit training for school: training in naming ("What's the name of that") and in understanding categorization ("What other animals can you think of that swim and also walk on land? What do we call that? Amphibious." See her Ways with Words)

Maybe all this is different now. I'm talking about the world where I went to school and where I did most of my teaching-a world where teachers tended to like kids and give lots of support. But I think this requirement of propriety is one of the big reasons why after I finally managed to get my PhD (failing at first), I kept trying to "cheat"-that is trying to find easier ways to do things.

So my first instance of cheating is to use easy natural speech for writing-even for academic writing-words that come out of my mouth easily and without planning-even though my thoughts took lots of work and were eventually planned and organized.