My eight year old daughter has clothes for both dolls and teddy bears. The dolls clothes do not fit the teddy bears and the teddy bears chubby, fur covered legs could never fit into the dolls clothes. When I “help her” clean her room we put the clothes for the bears in one basket on her book shelf and dolls’ clothes in another, owing to my own desire for order in a world where inanimate objects have wardrobes, with matching shoes. Aside from the fact that it seems excessive to me that my daughter owns a wedding dress for a teddy bear, my weekly encounter with this stuff that has somehow become a part of the fabric of my life with my daughter, our room cleaning ritual, her being eight, helps me to understand something else entirely.
When I taught community college students I used to have us work with theses I provided to help in organizing supporting information in an essay. A thesis that seemed to work well for this exercise, though it may not be a thesis truly up for debate, was something like, “Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the greatest pop album of all time.” We would craft several supports and then choose, as a class, which supporting details “went” with each support. This may not have been my most inspired bit of teaching, but it allowed us to see a simply argued thesis take shape with real supports from a quick bit of internet research and it was of course close to my own heart. My students, many coming from a day at work wanted a bit of something light hearted to discuss, all knew the album, and had (a few unwelcome) opinions about its greatness. The activity had a specific purpose grounded in my wanting to read an essay that made sense. I also wanted my students to know how to craft a logical argument that had organized the “things,” in this case facts, that supported a thesis into some sensible form of order. I also used to say that you don’t “put the socks in the underwear drawer,” meaning that there were specific places for “the stuff” in an essay.
I wasn’t wrong then, but my daughter’s teddy bear and doll clothes help me describe teaching writing as something that must exist more closely to my own way of writing. In the Michael Jackson thesis, I made all of the context and I boiled writing down to something as simple as sorting the teddy bears clothes from the dolls’. In truth, writing is only a little like that. When there is to be a soccer tournament, in my daughter’s room, sometimes some string, or tape and a pair of teddy bear soccer shorts must do the job of getting all the doll players dressed. The context, the need, the purpose all make the rules of organizing. In writing, as in clothes for teddy bears and dolls, categories must vary and shift.
I wanted to make writing that essay plain and simple for my students. I had a semester to teach them to write a clear essay, to craft an argument. These parameters shaped my teaching, just as the simplicity of the activity I created shaped their expectations of what they must be able to do to craft an argument, to make a point. The truth of what writing is, as well as the how writing is done are much more complicated than I lead them to believe. Often I have no idea what my thesis might be until I have written my own thoughts and conclusions about a topic. Often the thesis and facts come much later than a “thing” that gets me writing. Sometimes it is a phrase or part of a conversation that only leads me, down the road, to the reason I thought it was interesting to begin with. You could argue that the type of writing I want to do is very different than the type required of my students and that may be true. They were studying to be radiology technicians and police officers, I wanted them to have tools to help them in their own work and lives. Just as I write that, I realize it is quite close to what I want my own writing to be, for my own work and life too.
To return to my possibly labored metaphor of clothes for dolls and teddy bears, I think I was imposing my own order, on their clothes and on my student’s writing. I provided the number of baskets, chose the size, decided that there would be no clothes for Barbies in my daughter’s bedroom and chose to organize by the criteria of whose clothes were who’s. I am raising a daughter, scaffolding, perhaps, her future neatly organized home. But in raising writers, shouldn’t the disorder be something they must describe entirely for themselves? I think it must be. And so that is the direction my teaching will go. I’m learning to be alright with not being in charge, I’m learning to think about when being “in charge” is really for the good of the learning and writing. I’m hoping to get better at letting things go. The clothes on the floor though, will still be getting sorted, and put away neatly, doll’s with doll’s and teddy bears’ with teddy bears’. After all, I haven’t completely lost my grip on sanity.