Friday, February 3, 2012

Positively Crustaceous by Mary Ann Hogan

I was reading my final student compositions, laughing so hard I nearly spit out my coffee. Not for the reason you might think. I liked them. They were funny.

My students had become lobsters.


“My claws are tied together, and there are more lobsters around me here then I have ever seen in one spot (even more than when I went to the LMAs – the Lobster Music Awards) … Before all this, I lived in the Atlantic Ocean off of the coast of Maine where I was a professional singer. I have no idea where I am being held captive now, though if I do recall, the last sign I read said ‘Red Lobster’ (whatever that is).”

The text was David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” Students had a choice: either a regular ENC 1102 essay arguing this or that, or, a creative piece, inventing the persona of lobster or hungry human, maybe writing a dialogue, maybe a combo plate.

The results as rich as melted butter:

“Seafood Department: Oh boy! It looks like we have a talker on our hands.

“Lobster: Put me down, you jerk! First my ‘claws are pegged and banded’ to keep me from beating up the other lobsters. And now you are sending me away to get eaten (Wallace 8)? Put me back I say!

“Mrs. Brown: A talking lobster? Umm is that…

“Lobster: Of course it’s possible! This isn’t a dream, lady. I would pinch you to prove it but I have a bit of an issue with my claws.

“Seafood Department: Shut it, Lobster!

“Lobster: It’s Homarus americanus to you, Dude.”

Of 20 students, four chose the usual essay. Eighty percent went lobster. They chose the creative path, choosing excellent words, writing well, producing superior text-author citations and cogent (sometimes side-splitting) arguments. When the students came in for their final send-offs, I asked, What’s going on? Each offered a version of, “I felt like I got to be myself/ use my own voice/ didn’t have to worry about sounding ‘academic.’ ”

This means boatloads for us as Composition instructors. There is ample evidence that creativity and composition can co-exist, from Randall R. Freisinger’s 1978 “Creative Writing and Creative Composition” to Wendy Bishop’s more recent declaration that adding creative writing to Composition ignites the writing fire. When that happens, Bishop says, the switched-on students can see “the flexibility of the essay in all its permutations.”

So, why don’t we let more students become lobsters? Comfort with the old? Fear of the new? Both? Something else? The answers might depend on how one defines composition. In my orderly dictionary, one must travel down to item number ten to get to “An essay, esp. one written by a school or college student.” More precisely, composition is “the nature of something's ingredients or constituents; the way in which the whole or mixture is made up.” In our Rhet-Comp classes, our student compositions are made up of a hopeful jumble of paragraphs with a title and a works-cited page inching (we pray) toward academic acceptance.

As David Bartholomae put it in “Inventing the University,” Comp students are “trying on the discourse” even though they don’t “have the knowledge.” Too often this leads them to flat assemblages with all the character of a composition floor than to the word’s best definition – “the act of producing a work of art.” Such art can excite, dare to be different, use creative language and ideas beyond the bland purpose of being “correct.” It can have claws. It can be fun.

I, for one, have been chastened by the crustacean. I plan to sprinkle creative writing throughout the semester, in responses, in-class writing, or a bit of flexibility in essay assignments. The writing is better, the students are more excited and it feels so good to laugh.

Mary Ann Hogan is frantically working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University. She cooks and raises ducks. She doesn't cook the ducks. She has axed lobster from her diet. 

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting! I've been trying more and more approaches to keep creativity in composition. This is an insightful look at another approach!