The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

writing classes should teach writing

Stanley Fish's latest opinion piece is very typical Fish: take a complicated thing that academics talk about in jargon, find an extreme position on it from which you can say "everyone else is fooling themselves," and then use superior powers of argumentation to blast apart the opposition. He's great at it, and reading his stuff, whether it's reader-response theory or arguments against teaching writing by using politically charged subject-matter, always makes me think much harder. He's a very smart guy.

But this piece is a straw-man argument. "My grad students, who teach writing to freshmen, don't write well. Their class syllabi show that they are having their students argue over issues rather than practicing rhetoric and grammar. Therefore, I decreed that they must teach only rhetoric and grammar." I don't understand why we can't teach rhetoric and grammar THROUGH reading and responding to and writing about controversial issues. I grant that grad students in particular aren't expert in balancing the two, in making sure that the WORK students produce for the class and the grounds on which they are evaluated must be writing, not understanding of the issues. But they are learning to teach, to fumble their way through achieving that balance. I don't think Fish is prescribing a 1920s-style writing class consisting of drills, but like I said--he loves to take the extreme position, and it's possible that that's precisely what he mandated.

The real problem is that most grad students--hell, many college English professors!--are not capable of teaching "grammar" as I think Fish means the term. Of the 50 people who work for me, and who do a very good job getting students to write more clearly and more correctly and more effectively for an academic audience, I bet fewer than 10 could identify an appositive or explain a nonrestrictive clause or describe a linking verb. Nobody gets that in the public schools anymore, they don't get it in college or grad school (even in ed schools!), so how can we expect them to teach it? It's impractical and really not possible to train them in the basics of English grammar in three pre-semester days of training, so I suppose that incoming TAs could take a year-long "Structure of the English Language and How to Teach It" class.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


I finally finished Roberto BolaƱo's 2666. Wow. As many of you know, I am a sucker for the giant, messy, ultimately failed encyclopedic novel, and I'm pretty sure this is one of them. I'm just hoping it sticks with me--like V or GRAVITY'S RAINBOW--and doesn't fade into obscurity because in the end it isn't all that good--like AGAINST THE DAY. I have a book of photographs at home called something like JUAREZ, THE LABORATORY OF OUR FUTURE. It's one of these dystopian projects in which they take pictures of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and argue that all of its nastiness and violence and exploitation is what we're in for. I certainly hope not. Anyway, 2666 feels a bit like that book of photos is percolating underneath every page.


Monday, August 03, 2009

two Pittsburgh beer restaurants

I don't know about the South Side Works. What I initially feared was that it was going to be "The Grove," a nasty development in central LA near where we used to life. The Grove is a big outdoor mall right next to the Farmer's Market, but it's set up to be a sort of Disneyfied streetscape. It's got a little tram, a fountain, "street vendors," etc. All of this is entirely enclosed, of course; the outside wall running along Third Street is just as ugly as any exterior mall wall, faceless and windowless and giving the lie to the faux-pedestrian-friendliness of the Grove. It's really too bad, because there is a real potential for Third Street to be much more pleasant. It's got a park right there, a Whole Foods and (what used to be, at least) the foulest-smelling K-Mart in existence, and the Grove's other borders are essentially Fairfax and Beverly, two of the most pleasant streets in LA to stroll.

So as we watched South Side Works sprout up, and see the cutesy names for the coordinated parking garages and the streets and pseudo public park next to the Cheesecake Factory, I feared the worst. Fortunately, it hasn't gotten that bad, but there is a massive amount of street construction going on right now that might change things. It's still a pretty contained area--you definitely know you're in a mall kinda place. But there's an escape to the south (across Carson it's the gloriously shabby South Side Flats and wonderful Nadine's) and to the north, the South Side Trail is coming along after being interrupted by construction for several years.

Right along that trail is the first place we went, the Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh, which bills itself as one of the few foreign outposts of Munich's famed Hofbrauhaus. It's a beer kinda place, but it doesn't double as a sports bar: it's got a series of cavernous areas (quite loud) where people drink liters of beer. There's also several levels of porches and patios overlooking the Mon. We took the boys there a couple months ago, when they were still getting things together. It wasn't at all bad. The beer was excellent, and the food was quite acceptable. It's German food, of course, so it's not all that light. But the pretzels and cheese were perfect, and the sausages and such were essentially what you would expect. Thumbs up.

Sadly, the same wasn't true about another similar place that had received good reviews from the P-G and the Trib. Robinson--that strip-mall area you have to pass to and from the airport--is a desert for restaurants, which is always too bad when you get back from a long flight. I was quite happy to hear that there was one good place out there, and that it wasn't a chain like the craptastic Max & Erma's. But sadly, Bocktown was pretty poor. I hope that it's just getting its sea-legs, because it clearly had ambitions beyond being a TGIF. The menu had some really interesting stuff on it, but let's just make this thing clear: the "pretzels and cheese" plate was literally a bag of pretzels emptied into a basket. They take their beer seriously, and the selection was great, but the food (beyond the pretzels) wasn't. It wasn't awful, but it was just not done well. There was also some sort of serious service glitch, because it took us forever to get our food--45 minutes or so--and by the grace of god or someone we had just gotten the boys new toys that entertained them (potty-training reward for the young one). Bocktown seemed like a good place to go for after-work beers, but I'm not driving to Robinson after work, so I hope there's a clientele out west of town.