Image: Finding Forrester (2000)
“Of course, there’s a list of topics I won’t allow my students to write about,” the job candidate said, prompting nods of recognition among faculty members seated around the table. “Abortion, marijuana, ‘The Big Game.’” That last one was a genre so well enshrined (picture: athletic underdogs beating the odds, a la The Bad News Bears, in four to five pages of soppy prose) that it required no further definition. All of us at the table were teachers of first-year writing courses. “Gay Marriage,” noted one professor, another added, “‘The Bad Breakup.’ I won’t take that one.”
Those topics are familiar to me as a writing teacher — in fact, too familiar. But it had never occurred to me to actually make certain perennial college-essay topics verboten.
At first, my heart leapt at the idea. Never again having to read certain sentences — “My Best Friend (sic, capital letters) was always there for me” or “Gun control is a hot topic in America today” — was, I confess, appealing. The faculty seated around this table had clearly thought out their decision to declare some subjects off limits: “Papers on these topics are never good; I am just rescuing them from writing themselves into a corner”; “I have too many strong opinions on this, so I am just not able to be an impartial judge.”
But the more I thought about it, the more that stance struck me as problematic. Do math professors refuse to allow students to work out certain equations simply because they’ve been solved before? “Ax = b? It’s been done.” Do art professors say, “No more flowers and fruit; no more nudes!” Do ethics professors — sensitive to underbaked and specious arguments — refuse to allow debates on contemporary controversies because students are likely to make underbaked and specious arguments?
Perhaps most important: What does it mean to abdicate responsibility for remaining reasonably impartial on all potential subjects? In a world where critics already accuse the professoriate of a liberal bias, do we really want to say: “My views are so entrenched I cannot even assess the logic of another side. Or perhaps I could, but I won’t.”
The purpose of teaching is for the growth of the student, not for the entertainment of the teacher. I’d like to explore the argument that the same perennial writing topics that exasperate composition professors can offer important developmental learning opportunities to students. Consider the advantages of each of these evergreen themes as essay topics:
- The Big Game. This topic offers students an opportunity to practice immediate, urgent, present-tense writing. It rewards in medias res openings (“Here we are on the field, at the bottom of the ninth …”), active verbs, showing-not-telling, and reflective, contextualizing endings. It allows students to write their way through issues of teamwork, individual gumption, and sportsmanship and to weigh the importance of winning against the importance of simple experience itself.
- The Best Friend/Boyfriend/Girlfriend and/or The Bad Breakup: What could be more important to any of us than writing about our loves and our losses — all the more so because many traditional college-aged students are living these narratives for the very first time? Many of our favorite novels, plays, and poems are some version of love/breakup stories.
- The Tribute to a Parent/Grandparent: I am partial to this topic because it so often marks a formative shift from seeing authority figures as encumbrances — out-of-date and out-of-touch — to considering them more sensitively and maturely as human beings offering wisdom, life-experience, and devotion.
From narrative topics, we can move into those that offer students an opportunity to make an argument:
- The Personal Transgression: Shoplifting, drunk driving, and drug use — these are often students’ first experiences with significant transgression, and with weighing questions of risk, honesty, integrity, and honor. I can’t help but see meaning and purpose in that, even if the infractions discussed seem trite or cliché.
- The Controversial Topic: Sure, topics like abortion, gun control, or gay marriage are overexposed debates, but they wouldn’t be of such heightened social interest if they weren’t so interesting and vital. At their best, they raise questions of personhood, of life and death, of consciousness, of personal and social liberty, and of human rights — exactly the sort of weighty considerations we want to encourage thoughtful undergraduates to examine closely.
But you might say that few undergraduates will write about these subjects in a thoughtful way, and on that score I’d likely agree. However, that’s where I come in: As a writing professor it is exactly my job to show students where the greatest potential — and most common pitfalls — of these topics lie.
Students may reach for these topics reflexively, but there is nothing “easy” or “natural” about covering them well. It’s important to teach undergraduates that. Any writer called upon to draft a eulogy, for example, has experienced how difficult The Best Friend or The Parental Tribute essay really is. A really good version, for instance, will not be one monolithic mood, but will be careful to include different emotional tones — a little bit funny, a little bit sappy, a little bit sad. Likewise, “my best friend is always there for me” might be an acceptable thesis but “my best friend, however beloved, is occasionally my worst enemy” is a far more fascinating one. The instructor’s role here is to help students see the difference.
Choosing a perennial essay topic also means students are writing up against a long history. They are doing what David Bartholomae and other writing theorists call “joining the conversation.” It is my task to alert students to that and urge them to acknowledge that conversation in their writing. It is my responsibility, as well, to attune them to issues of audience, to make them aware that their audience comes at evergreen topics with many prior expectations. To cover a well-trammeled topic effectively is thus to “make it new” — to uncover a hidden angle, to approach it from a different direction. On the other hand, to totally flout audience expectations can backfire if its purpose seems purely to shock. Often, then, it is best to offer audiences a little bit of the expected along with the innovative, and it is challenging for students to practice that balance.
Whatever the topic, perennial or otherwise, my job is to do what I usually do: challenge their critical thinking urge them to delve deeper, and be more creative — in short, to gently call them on any lazy reasoning and too-easy conclusions. I have sometimes joked that, as writing teachers, we could do worse than to limit all of our comments to just one key word: “Really?” Of course I more varied feedback:What can you offer as evidence for that? What insights can you offer that I might not have heard before? What might your opposition say?Are you sure you want to make your argument this absolutely?
In the final tally, pressing students to dig deeper in an essay on a perennial topic is far more educational — and more likely to result in improved thinking and writing — than simply forbidding them from writing about such topics. I will continue to allow writing on abortion, marijuana, and The Big Game for as long as such themes are attractive to and meaningful for my students, and we will battle readerly boredom together as part of their maturing writerly praxis.