What Happens in College is Real

We recently completed another graduation at Azusa Pacific University, where I teach literature and writing. In the celebratory dinners and receptions with students and their family and friends leading up to the ceremony itself, there is always a lot of talk the students finally finishing college and entering the “real world.”

That’s what they call it. Real.

That implies, of course, that what they’ve been doing at the university for the previous four years or so is not real, an assumption I vigorously challenge.

The course I teach most often is a survey course called American Literature Since 1865. It is real. I can tell you from about 30 years of teaching this class—and the feedback I have received from students—that the reading the students do in the course brings moments of insight and inspiration that are as important as anything they will experience after college. I’m talking about times inside and outside of class when we get lost in the literature, caught up in the stories, challenged by the poetry, awakened intellectually and spiritually by the things that matter most. Not every day, of course, and not for every person at the same time. A class day that is life-changing for one student may leave another student cold.

But some moments are life-changing. I’ve known students who have changed their major to English based on one literature course they had signed up for simply to fulfill a General Education requirement.

In my American literature survey course, we cover about 50 authors over the course of a semester. Students delve into the gut-wrenching psychological journey of Edna Pontellier as she questions every assumption about her role and identity in life in Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening. We work our way through a very different kind of journey in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, as Huck wiggles out of one scrape after another while also trying to help his friend, the escaped slave Jim, reach freedom. We analyze the opposing perspectives and approaches toward race of  Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

We spend time with the fascinating but dysfunctional families in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. We’re challenged and inspired by the poetry of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Theodore Roethke, and Billy Collins. We marvel at the creative storytelling techniques of William Faulkner in his novel As I Lay Dying. We enter the worlds of a wide variety of American lives in the stories of John Updike, Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya, and Amy Tan. As students read and consider the lives and ideas of others, they rethink their own relationships, challenges their own biases, and form a better understanding of the past. Sometimes become lifelong fans of authors they had previously never heard of.

None of that is real?

Only a job after graduation is real?

Our students do get jobs, too, by the way. Or they go to graduate school, or do missions trips, or pursue dreams in a variety of ways. I don’t diminish the importance of that, or of paying off the high cost of the college experience.

What I’m fighting is this perception that college is only preparation for life and is not life itself. The years you spend in college are real years, just like the years you spend in your thirties or any other time. Why reduce the college years to simply a time to endure so you can move on to “real life”? Why not relish every phase of life? I don’t know many people in their thirties, for example, who behave as if that time is mainly preparation for their seventies.

I’ve been focusing on one of my courses as an example of what’s real, but I could choose many others from my colleagues in English, and that’s only one department. Other fields are just as crucial, and not only for job preparation, but also for life—psychology, economics, theology, art, music, history, and others. And that’s just the curricular part of college. I haven’t touched on all the other elements of college life such as friendships, service, international study and travel, spiritual worship and development, and all the fun that college students also have.

Isn’t all that real?

What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me About Writing

What is the best way to approach a writing task, whether as a professional writer or a student? Do you procrastinate until the last minute and then start writing on page one and hope for the best? Or is there a better approach? My friend and APU colleague, Tom Allbaugh, confronts that problem in a very helpful guest post this week. Dr. Allbaugh is an accomplished writer who is celebrating the release of the second edition of his excellent writing textbook, Pretexts for Writing. I think you will enjoy what he has to say.  

What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me About Writing

By Tom Allbaugh

In the first chapter of Pretexts for Writing, I tell a story about when I was a student in a freshman writing class. I tell of how I waited, like most students I see today, until one or two nights before the deadline to get started on my research paper. Even though this was 1974 and I had to write on an old typewriter, I pretty much started by sitting down to write what I hoped would be the final draft.

Teachers call this “top-down writing.” We see it all the time in the movies. The writer starts typing without planning, hoping that inspiration will show up. In the movies, of course, the writer becomes rich and famous. In real life—in my life, for that first college assignment—I struggled to complete six pages. I didn’t even think about my main point until well into that “final” draft.

Many of my students have told me that they like that I tell this story. They say that it helps them connect with my ideas. I’m glad that my plan to demonstrate an idea also serves the second function of connecting with my audience.

Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me?

Today, I do often wish that someone had taught me that writing needs to be planned. A plan can be simple and personal, but it will usually involve us in generating ideas, thinking about genre, and making audience considerations.

The writers I know or have read about in interviews sometimes discuss their composing process, and their approaches can be idiosyncratic. We know, for example, that C.S. Lewis took long walks. Beethoven did this also, planning his works as he went. Looking at his fragmented writing in his notebooks, with his scratched out notes and revised ideas, anyone can see the years of work it took him to sketch out his symphonies. Some have suggested that it took this composer a lot of digging to connect with his unconscious. Getting the unconscious into the writing act is perhaps what prompted Ernest Hemingway to stand at his typewriter at chest level and Mark Twain and Truman Capote to both write lying down.

Especially among creative thinkers, planning usually has this “mental” element to it, but it will also allow writers into the more conscious work of considering the kind of writing being attempted and who their audience is.

When I started out in college, I wouldn’t have thought like this. At eighteen, I worked from the belief that writing an argument or a research paper or a novel required only inspiration and self-expression. This is also probably why the research paper task always seemed so daunting to me. None of my teachers ever told me that I should probably plan what to write about. As early as the fifth grade, I was told about revision and that I should write an outline. But outlining is an organizing strategy and, suspiciously, does not always allow for other kinds of planning.

What I Know Now

Today, even in those rare instances when I get inspiration, I still know enough to allow myself time to generate more thoughts before I start. The planning can vary—brainstorming, free-writing, or conversation will work—depending on what I am writing. There’s much room for variation. Probably the only exception to this rule is when I write a journal entry.

But this is what I wish I’d been taught from the very start. So I have organized Pretexts for Writing to begin with planning, with what writing and speech teachers since Aristotle have called “invention.” This opening, I hope, will encourage thinking about different aspects of planning.

Thomas Edison is supposed to have said that his work involved about 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. I may be off on his numbers just a little, but his point is clear. Inspiration is over-rated. But just getting to work and making some plans, I can usually encourage and generate some inspiration.