Being Both Personal and Academic: The Lessons of Objects

 

In this featured session, the panelists, Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Blake Yancey presented their writing experiences that resulted from a thirty days object-lessons writing exercise.  This writing project involved a daily writing exercise that was prompted by an object of each person’s choosing—a different object each day.  Object writing, they suggest, has the potential to be a very effective pedagogical tool, especially in the basic writing class where inexperienced writers might struggle with connecting to a writing topic. Their claim is simple: we allow students a chance to pick an object from their own environment and write about that object; the writing, they claim, will be easier and the road to discovery interesting. Sommers says that a student may pick an object like a bus ticket and then he or she will write about the ticket, but then he or she will be inspired out of a natural tendency to question where the bus came from and where it is going; the object, in this case a bus ticket, is concrete so the often abstract tenets of writing become conceptualized, providing a transparent view of the actual process.  The argument, then, considers that allowing basic writers an opportunity to control their writing through object writing, the students are able to move across time and space to investigate what a thing is as well as why it was chosen and how they are connected to their chosen objects.   

 

In keeping with the theme of object writing, the session chair, Linda Adler-Kassner from the University of California, Santa Barbara, provided her own object-writing example.  Adler-Kassner gave each panel member an object that represented some trait of each session member.  For instance, Yancey wants to succeed, so she, to much laughter from the audience members, received the glowing, floating eyeball.  The Magela and a crown Adler-Kassner gave to Sommers to symbolize Sommers’ leadership qualities, particularly her leadership in composition.  And finally, the object that exemplified Hess was a stuffed replica of the cartoon character Mr. Peabody, representing Hess’s intelligence and calming effect upon any situation.   Adler-Kassner’s charismatic, energetic, and light-hearted approach to introducing the session and session members provided a relaxed tone for the presentations that followed and gave the audience and the session members a more relaxed and familiar ambiance than what we typically feel in some of the sessions in which the presenters are such composition rock stars.    

 

The first session member presenter was Douglas Hesse from the University of Denver presenting “A Folder, A Tombstone, and a License to Ditch Rhetoric.”  Hess began his presentation with his object, a picture of Sandi Patty, a religious singer, comparing, much to the delight of the audience members, her singing to that of blues singers, but of course without booze and sex.  As Hess moved from object to object, we saw a theme emerge that situated music, performers, instruments, and folders as a means of identity formation.  His movement from past to present and the transitions and connections between the objects as well as transitions and connections between past and present demonstrated the need to teach smooth time and space travel. It was profound for me to witness how he moved from some very abstract ideas about identity formation to exemplification of those ideas in a concrete showing through his objects: how embarrassing it was for him to empty the spit valve of his trombone as opposed to the really cool musicians who were never embarrassed about such basic elements such as spit.  He further exemplifies his musical development through pictures, and the chronological development through his words was seamless as he moved us from pictures of a fledgling musician to an accomplished and cool musician and at presents a confident and poised musician.  Furthermore, Hesse demonstrated his technique of writing by first providing a picture perfectly represented on the PowerPoint slide, then he read his words that described the object and situated the object in time and space, and finally he added song to his presentation, making the texture multilayered, a demonstration that can define how we can teach our students to use every available means for expression.

 

What does this have to do with basic writers?  Hess gave us a trial run of how we can point our students to different ways in which they may look at their various objects and writing techniques that will add to the basic writer’s repertoire if skills.  I suspect that Hess reads written text the same way he reads written music and his writing seems as fluid and rhythmic as any music written by any of the master musicians.  When he finished, I felt as satisfied as if a well-practiced orchestra had just performed.

 

The second presenter, Nancy Sommers, Harvard University, Cambridge, presented “The Call of Objects.”  Sommers picked up where Hess ended, writing through time and space.  Sommers’ objects were symbolic of not only the past and present but also of identity constructs that resulted from the need to belong.  The Maxell House coffee can that Sommers took from her parent’s freezer represented for her a symbol of security and familiarity.  Her objects moved from her parent’s past to her own past and she demonstrated the intersections through her own identity development.  I found it interesting that our identity formations are connected to those simplistic items like expired cookies sitting in the bottom of a now empty freezer in a familiar object—the blue Maxwell House coffee can.  Her metaphor of her parent’s once filled freezer demonstrates the busy lives that her parents had and how adamant they were to secure a future devoid of hunger.  Now her parents in their old age have an empty freezer, Sommers says the empty freezer is like a lost family member. 

 

Writing students who have a sentimental connection to their objects are able to write reflectively about their objects but those reflective pieces can provide a natural curiosity and a natural need to explain everything that can be explained.  Why, for instance, did Sommers’ mother need to acquire an American identity, and why was securing and storing food such a comfort?  These questions, Sommers answered when she explained how her parents came from another country during a time when Americans were not receptive of people, especially people from Germany.  Sommers demonstrated how the fear of hunger and the need to make sure that they were prepared for the worse are examples of how object writing is a spring board project:  one object allows for more information that moves from  the past, to the present, and even into the future.   Sommers, like Hess, provided a concrete example of how object writing can begin with the simple physical characteristics of the object, but through natural inquiry, the students will search for answers that move them and their writing through time and space.  The skills the students will glean from this exercise will transfer from object writing to more advanced academic prose and the writing process that they learn to use will continue through other disciplines.  Sommers exemplified how easy writing about objects can be taught and how easy it can be for the students to learn; moreover, she demonstrated how writing and objects could intersect and when that happens, writing becomes the object. 

 

The final session presenter, Kathleen Blake Yancey from Florida State University, Tallahassee, presented “Objects, the Vernacular, and Composing’s Invention.”  Yancey moved us to a place in the past as she presented various pictures, post cards, and scrape book pages as evidence of vacations for some and accountings of a Japanese American who lived through WWII as an American but an American who had ancestral ties to a country that was at war with the USA.  In addition, the present Yancey demonstrated by providing pictures of objects from her own home—pictures of plants and flowers and chairs, all objects that provide an insight into who Yancey is outside of academia. 

 

Yancey perfectly demonstrated the false starts of writing and how she questioned every aspect of the object writing—what kind of object, and does this count or that.  From her questions and false starts we got a sense of how insecure our own students may feel and how our own writing is wrought with insecurities as we move from ideas to words on our paper.  Yancey’s descriptive accounts of yellow-page scrape books and blooming tulips reminded me of how important descriptive writing is and especially important it is for us to teach description to our students.  Describing an object first before connecting it in time and space is crucial for understanding what it is that the students need to do while offering them a place to begin.   Yancey described meta-writing and the state of being hyper aware, and she says that this project gave her permission to pay attention. Her idea of scrape books as a means of inter-textual communication provided an excellent example of how writing about objects is important for teaching students how to connect through time and space and between object and writing.  

 

After sitting through Hess, Sommers, and Yancey’s presentations, I began coming up with my own ideas for expanding this project for my technical writers—description is an important quality for business and engineer students to master.   That’s what I love about the CCCCs, we come here and run into familiar people who we may only see yearly, and we sit through panels that provide us with familiar ideologies and pedagogies.  But the panels, just like our old friends, provide us with information and news that we welcome and we cannot wait to share with our friends who didn’t make it to the conference.  Everyone here is fine; we are eating and visiting, and learning.  We also want you guys who are sitting in your office in front of your computers to get just a taste of what we are feasting on as we move from session to session.  Hess, Sommers, Yancey, and Addler-Kassner rocked this session.  

 

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