Monday, March 13, 2006

spring break part two, or, stranger in a strange land

While I fully intended to spend all of spring break either sleeping, writing, or reading (okay, also drinking), I got called back into the world of composition, somewhere I wasn't really planning on venturing. I wanted to have a whole week where I didn't think of school at all, where the thought of student writing never crossed my mind. Of course, it didn't work out that way.

The week before break, I got an e-mail from a book representative wanting to know if I was interested in attending a symposium of college composition instructors. Apparently, my boss couldn't make it, my assistant boss couldn't make it, and they somehow worked their way down to me.

It is one of the strangest elements of my life that, now that I have a full-time position, I am continually courted by book representatives. When they heard that I was on a composition textbook subcommittee, they came out of the woodwork. I have had piles of texts sent my way, I have been interviewed at length about my teaching practices, I have had reps offer to take me out to lunch on them.

College textbooks is a major business, particularly when you're getting into the realm of anthologies, which can average around $75 a book. When you throw in the fact that courses like comp are required of every single student, a company can gain a whole lot of income by convincing a department to use their text. So it's not surprising that they try to latch on to every possible lead.

It does, however, feel weird to be the beneficiary of such behavior. It fits into my fully ambiguous feelings toward my class status. On one hand, I'm very much still very low on the totem pole within this university, this department...but these reps treat me like some tyrant who can change their lives with a nod of the head.

So when they asked me to go to this symposium, I expected either a sprawling "time-share sales pitch" or a pleading "how can we make ourselves worthy of you?" day of fawning. Personally, the prospect looked as promising as a root canal...but it was a line on the vita, they were covering all expenses, and they were paying me...which is always a tempting combination, hard to I went.

The symposium was at a hotel in Livonia MI...which is, as far as I can tell, a land of strip malls, chain restaurants, and subdivisions, sort of a Edward Sissorhands setting, only outside Detroit. The only other thing I know about the area is that the area UPN channel carries these really goofy ads for some big jewelry warehouse, where every single employee gathers for the closing shot and waves in perfect unison.

The perks of the trip were, on whole, not bad. We ate at a really good chain top-end Chinese restaurant, where I had several drinks and a kickin' lamb stir-fry on them. Afterward, we went to the hotel bar, and I got several Irish whiskeys on them. I then went to my relatively nice hotel room. The free hotel breakfast was so-so, but I guess you can't win them all.

The funny thing is that when the symposium started, the book reps made it quite clear that they were not going to try to sell us anything, and they in fact didn't want us to refer to any textbook or product by name...not even if it was theirs. They were, instead, very interested in getting a "state of the art" of comp teaching from us.

So we talked about composition, the struggles we face in teaching it, our approaches, preconceptions we face, and all that. I met some really nice and interesting people, including the heads of several writing there was in fact networking.

As much as I learned about composition teachers, I realized that I am not one of them...and I do not really think like they do, for the most part. For me, the main value to the symposium was the chance to look inside their heads, see how they think, see how they view the world. I started to try to formulate how I saw these people, how they say themselves...and I realized it was a pretty big project. I'm thinking that my second big academic project might have to be a full cultural study of the world of composition instruction.

It could be a synthesis of my personal experiences/biography and the full cultural study/serious academic endeavor angle...thus, it would combine the "fun" factor of personal writing along with serious inquiry...which would make it a blast to write. It could be a good bridge between school and the mass market...which might actually give me a name in the publishing biz. Of course, it might also make me unemployable in the comp field, but it could bring me admirers from the teaching ranks.

Who knows? I might end up using a lot of space on this blog to further explore this issue. I might recycle many of these posts. I might solicit more personal stories and research tips. I will eventually find a way to use this blog for actual work instead of the avoidance of...

Now I just need to finish my first book...

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