What is American?

I have been setting up new training for the students I hire as writing tutors. My tutors are terrific students who understand coaching, modeling academic writing behaviors, and conventional essay structure better, often, than correct use of commas. Anyone can eventually figure out commas, though–that’s not the best use of a student’s time in a tutoring session. Writing tutoring works best when the tutor and student engage in understanding the assignment and the reading and then, mutually, figure out the most appropriate means of expressing the student’s stance and response. Only the final draft needs a bit of window-dressing for academic correctness, though that certainly is important…more important to some instructors than it is to others, and more important to some students than it is to others!

What I’ve lately come to recognize is that my tutors need a little more guidance in how to assist non-native-English-speakers. The need is not merely pedagogical–such as how to coach someone in the correct use of articles or of adjective-noun word order or verb agreement. The need is also cultural: my tutors should possess an awareness of cultural and ethnic variations in background that make content-reading, prompt-interpretation, and the structure of essay-writing far more complex than they may realize.

The college at which I work is small, religious-based, suburban, regional, and only recently multi-ethnic. My tutors tend to be from fairly privileged high schools and are, after all, quite young (undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the oldest among them is only 22). I’m continually impressed by their willingness to expand their horizons–many of them have taken semesters or mission trips abroad, for example. Several of them have asked me for advice on how to conduct tutoring sessions with “ESL” students. Hence, some training is in order.

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I encounter this new generation of students in my office, as well; and recently, one of them asked me what she could do to “become American more quickly.” She has been in the US for two years, and she does not know what to read or what to watch to guide her more rapidly into American culture other than self-help books, popular TV, and internet sites, which she finds unfathomable and uninteresting: Everyone speaks too quickly. She misses all the allusions. The material seems shallow and risqué.

Reasonable conclusions on her part. She is bright and observant.

My feeling is that cultural appropriation is American culture, and vice versa, but that notion is a bit theoretical for the writing center. One has to start somewhere, so what path can I show her? She is so eager, yearning written all over her face and her posture–and so full of questions that in her naivete she believes I can answer.

My tutors and I need to recognize ourselves as cultural informants§, and to proceed to assist students to write as clearly in US/American-English as possible while respecting the diverse knowledge and cultural differences we are liable to encounter more frequently as our institution becomes more open and diverse–a welcome diversity that will change and enhance the college mission.

My tutee’s earnest question has primed my thinking–what is “American”? Every time we converse with a student, we are inadvertently cultural ambassadors; we represent the culture that we unwittingly just are. So now, as we help at the sentence level, we ought also to think about who it is we are and what we can do to help newcomers to acclimate.

How? I believe the students we tutor will offer the best and brightest assistance in that direction.

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§ See Staben & Nordhaus, “Looking at the Whole Text”

Reasonable, calming…

Campaign rhetoric is  hardly deserving of the name. The commentator who attempts to persuade or question through the means of valuable, thoughtful rhetoric endeavors to avoid fallacies and ballyhooing. But such commentators are scarce as hen’s teeth. Apparently, we citizens of the USA are not considered intelligent enough, are not respected enough, by our politicians and their media handlers to be worthy of genuine discourse or reasonable argument. We are also far too emotional and prone to grand-standing and stereotyping, the media-savvy promoters must imagine. With a certain amount of dismay, I admit there may be some truth to that pathetic view of the average US voter; but I want to believe we are better than that.

In the thick of a presidential election, therefore, I find it pleasant to retreat to the calming, reasonable, optimistic (though cautioning) prose of Marilynne Robinson. For those of you who, like me, feel a sickening pressure around the whole election brou-ha-ha, I suggest a few hours reading and re-reading her recent book of collected essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Robinson makes no secret of her perspectives as a Christian, Protestant, US citizen, and reasonable, thinking, person of letters (humanities canon through and through…). She also establishes how her perspective widens rather than narrows her views, offers her “gentler” interpretations of the Old Testament and of Calvin’s writing and teachings, and argues her opinion with an erudition, elegance, simplicity and wisdom that is exceedingly rare today, particularly during presidential election years…and among people identifying themselves as “Christians.”

In “Open Thy Hand Wide,” Robinson parses the difference between rationality and reason and reminds us of what the word “liberal” originally meant (and how its meaning has changed and become vague). By the way, though a rational person in terms of her use of rhetoric, Robinson is squarely in the arena of reason, which she defines — with sources, thank you — as less numerical and more courageous and intuitive, ie human, than the merely rational.

Is her work ever political? Is it ever not political? It depends upon  how one defines “political.” Robinson is deeply engaged with the human community. I think she would agree with Lewis Mumford on the city’s best purpose as being there to protect the welfare of its citizens, even the least of its citizens, and would agree that one of the most significant values of civilization is the creation of art. Certainly she here asserts that the highest purpose of nationhood is to establish justice (civic, human justice), to keep domestic peace within the nation itself, to secure freedom and liberty for all members of the society equally, and to keep the populace safe while promoting the common welfare of all the people.

I believe she is well aware–though she doesn’t say it even  once in this book–that this stance makes her a classic patriot, a defender of the US Constitution, even as it also means that she can easily be branded a “liberal” for her well-argued stance that the USA was not established as a capitalist nation but as a generous democratic one devoted to the public welfare (ie, “good”), and what the difference between those theories are.

Just a week or two ago, I visited the US Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The performance offered there (“We the People”) and the interactive and non-interactive exhibit halls do a good job of reminding US citizens that the Constitution is a living document that established a government like no other before it, a document amenable to change and interpretation even as it establishes fundamental rights. Let us look at the Preamble and connect it with Robinson’s essays and ideas:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Reasonable. Generous–even Liberal. Secure for the people–no caving in to irrational fears; offering human justice because divine justice is not for us to determine; defense, not aggression; attentiveness to the general welfare (not of the privileged few)…and liberty: the chance to live as safe a life as God and the randomness of earthly environments allow without the oppression of other human beings to weigh us down.

You really have to read Robinson’s measured, calm prose and clear reasoning to feel the optimism; I cannot do it justice. I will just say that reading her book has made me feel much less depressed during a time when lack of discourse and logic has made me almost lose my hope about the democratic process.

Molte bene, Marilynne.