With a new semester about to start, I’m writing introductions to the course packs that I’ve put together. Here’s one of them.
Let’s start with the obvious: This book is a mess. I’ve collected essays I’ve read over the years and stitched them into a collage that doesn’t obviously add up to a coherent whole. You can tell this is the case just by scrolling through and eyeballing the text. In some instances, I’ve provided PDFs of the original source material. In other instances, I’ve copied the original text into MS Word documents to make them more legible. And the topics, you’ll find, tend to be all over the map.
The most basic reason I put this collection together was to save you money. I just checked the price of one of the popular readers for ENG 101, and it’s going for $85 new and $78 used. Say what you want about me as a teacher – that I’m hard to follow, that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m disorganized, that I’m a harsh and unfair grader, that I’m the worst teacher you ever had. That’s all fine, and I’ve heard it all before. Assuming it’s all true, which it probably is, you still need to always admit that I saved you eighty bucks.
Of course, the larger reason for this big, messy collection of essays has less to do with money and more to do with learning. I’m not going to go into too much depth about that right now, but my hope is that as the semester progresses, you’ll start to see a pattern or a larger concept emerging from these readings. In some instances, you might read an essay that I’ve assigned and notice a connection between its main point (or thesis) and the chaotic nature of this book as well as my overall approach to teaching. But even then, your momentary sense of clarity may sink back into chaos as you move on to another completely unrelated essay that I’ve assigned.
Let me also add that the messy nature of this book is meant, on a microcosmic level, to mirror the messy nature of life. You don’t need me to tell you that life is chaotic – or that one thing separating humans from other animals is that we’re fairly adept at finding order in chaos or, from another perspective, imposing order on that chaos. Sometimes we do it on an individual level, and sometimes we do it on a social level. Whatever the case, one thing we need to be able to do is express the sense of order that we glean from the world around us to other people—not necessarily to convince them, but to let them know how we’re interpreting the (chaotic) world around us.
In broad terms, this course is about doing what we always do as humans – that is, taking different and often contradictory pieces of information from our messy world and attempting to assemble it into a coherent whole or a fairly consistent web of knowledge. Needless to say, all of our wholes are different. These differences may be subtle or they may be glaring. But with any luck, this course will give us some of the tools we need in order to clearly explain to others how we’re making sense of the world and why it matters. The fancy term for this “academic discourse.”