A Writing Assignment

A Writing Assignment

Happy Catholic links to an interesting piece by Orson Scott Card (you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page) about an assignment he gave to his college students that changed his life.

He asks the students in his Contemporary American Novel class to report on American culture as they have experienced it:

Without meaning to, I had given them an approach to writing a de-personalized personal memoir.

When you assign people to write something entitled “My Life,” they usually end up writing inanities, starting with events they don’t remember (their birth, etc.) and rambling on and on, skipping everything personal and interesting so they can report on the official “highlights” of their lives.

This assignment gave them a different structure. They could skip their birth. They focused instead on what they had observed of the society around them. Since it needed no form, they could simply report more-or-less directly on what they saw through the lens of memory, looking not at themselves, but at others.

Self-consciousness was not erased—indeed, some of the essays and narratives were almost painfully self-revelatory. But they didn’t have to describe their own actions, which always leads to self-justification, and instead tried to recover how the world had looked to them as they were growing up.

If I were still teaching writing, I think this would be a great assignment to steal. I’d love to see all the students’ answers.

Card got more than he bargained for, however:

As I read these fascinating papers, however, I began to synthesize something from the things they had written about. Student after student inadvertently told stories about decisions their parents had made.


Of course their father had taken a relatively low-paying job and sacrificed any thought of a prominent career, in order that his kids could grow up in a small town.

Of course the parents had moved, not to a richer neighborhood, but to a more family-friendly one. Or from one town to another to get them away from negative influences.

Above all, many of these parents had chosen to accept a lower standard of living so that their children could grow up with at least one parent always in the home, and both parents easily accessible to their children all the time.

They had seen what they believed was good for their children, and they had done it, seemingly without regard for society’s expectations.


But the number of them who had chosen for their children’s sake rather than their own—the number who had shaped their lives to give their children homes full of parental love and attention and presence instead of money and prestige—forced me to stop and examine my own life.

What was I doing, driving three hours each way to teach at a university? I would leave on Tuesday morning and not be home till late Thursday night. I still have a newly teenaged daughter at home.

What message was I giving her, compared to the message these other parents had given their children?

Wasn’t the message: “Being a professor and getting to do cool stuff at a university is so important to me that I will miss 3/7 of your remaining years at home”?

In other words, I was saying: “Other people’s children are more important to me than you are.”

I had thought that I was doing something quite noble and wonderful—and, in the long view, it’s hard to think of a nobler and more wonderful profession than teaching.

But most parents who absent themselves from their children’s lives believe they’re doing something noble and wonderful.

And so Card decides to give up teaching until his daughter is grown and out of the house. Do read the whole piece, I’ve cut out lots of good bits.

This struck me because it echoes the choices I’ve made. I’m not teaching a college class this semester nor will I be doing so in the fall. I haven’t taught a class since before Bella was born.

I probably could manage to sneak one in. I have the time. But every time I’m tempted to call up my old department head and ask for a class, I begin to remember how stressed out I was all the time when I was a teacher. I loved teaching but it drained my emotional and mental reserves. Teaching, for me at least, takes huge swathes of time, more than it probably should. But I’m that terrible combination: a perfectionist and a procrastinator. It takes me so much time to draw up lesson plans, much more time than it should to read student papers and an agonizing amount of time to mark and grade them. And I’d much rather devote that time and attention to Isabella.

So for now my intellectual outlet is this blog and a bunch of blogs I can read. Blogs are easy to read in the small ten or twenty minute spaces a young child lets you have to yourself. And nothing is harmed when you ignore them for days or weeks on end. And my intellectual outlet is reading about homeschooling and exploring all sorts of pedagogies and philosophies of education. All that energy is still ultimately focused on Isabella, planning for her future education. And my intellectual outlet is reading books, lots of books, especially the kind that can be picked up and put down at a moment’s notice. And my intellectual outlet is long conversations with my husband.

And for now when people ask me if I plan to go back to teaching, I feel no regret when I say no. Because being with Isabella is the most important job I can do right now and I want to give her my full attention.


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