Class Discussion and Writing Due Dates

New Yorker cover featuring a blurry drawing overlaid with a graphic indicating the image is loading


Jay Voss

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The New Yorker

This semester I’m teaching a composition class centered around The New Yorker magazine. The impetus for this course was that I wanted my students, who grew up with the immediate culture of the internet, to spend hours musing over longer arguments, and then try and rearticulate those arguments in a critical manner. This is a difficult task when one’s being bombarded with tweets and texts all the time from friends, as I know most twenty-first century students are. It’s an especially difficult task for undergraduates when the arguments in question are as subtle as The New Yorker’s. Another thing that's great about the course is The New Yorker is often an exemplar of good prose style, and I happen to think that good writing is a product of good reading. So it’s my hope that students will find something for them in the magazine, become captivated in the reading, and that this magazine’s good prose will filter into their writing. But I face a problem in the class on days in which writing is due: How should I ignite discussion of a particular New Yorker article after students have been up late hammering out the final sentences of their own writing?

Some might chide me as foolish for not having my students submit electronic versions of their writing on days that class doesn’t meet, the implication of this being that precious class time doesn’t become a nap making up for the night before. But the world awaiting my students after college won’t work like that. They’ll be expected to manage their time in a way that allows them to accomplish multiple tasks, and orient their production to proffer complete items randomly in the middle of the day. Seeing that this is something one learns only with practice, I’m not really inclined to make work due “by midnight on Friday.”

I had to deal with such a scenario this past week. At the start of class last Wednesday I polled my students to find out who completed the day’s reading in addition to the previous night’s writing. Only about 11 hands went up in the air, roughly half of the class. What I did was have the class count off in fours and split up into groups of 5 students, and each group was to take 35 or 40 minutes and outline the day’s New Yorker article. It happened to be about a Houston-based neuroscientist, and the piece ends with the scientist traveling to London to hang out with Brian Eno and a bunch of drummers. Not only are the articles subtle enough to get students scratching their heads, but surprise trips across the ocean to be with 1980s rock stars can be hard for students to analyze rhetorically. So, as my students split up into groups and began their outlines, I also asked them to figure out how the final part of the article was functioning as part of a coherent argument.

At the end of 40 minutes each of the groups was only the right track, and 3 of the 4 had successfully determined why Brain Eno was cropping up in an article about a Houston neuroscientist. This was an especially helpful experience for my students that are struggling with the New Yorker’s subtlety. It is my hope that they don’t give up, and subsequently the next time they see the rather simplistic rhetoric of, say, a presidential candidate, they’ll see right through it. Not to mention my other great hope – that all the good reading improves their writing.


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