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The Curmudgeon of ENG 610 Asks Two Questions

February 24th, 2008 LauraHills

At dinner last night, my husband and I engaged in one of our usual spirited conversations. This one began with theories of leadership that I’m studying in another course, but honestly, we could have been talking about goat herding. The topic didn’t matter. After several volleys, Cornell told me that I enjoy arguing. Moi? Enjoy arguing?  I jabbed back that he couldn’t be more wrong. I lock horns with Cornell during these discussions, I said, because I have strong opinions. That’s all.However, reading my four blog posts up in my office early this Sunday morning (while Cornell is downstairs eating breakfast), I have something to admit to all of you, my colleagues. Surprise, surprise, I see that my dear husband is right. The truth is that I’m downright cantankerous.

I didn’t realize until right now that each of my first four blog posts for ENG 610 argues something, and that that something is without exception based upon a negative. Here’s what I mean:

  • Blog Post 1: I argue that my instructors failed me by not teaching me how to read poetry and for not sharing with me that poetry is difficult.
  • Blog Post 2: I argue that Bass’s oral assessment method is cause for concern - three concerns, in fact.
  • Blog Post 3: I argue that the way we teach literature studies today is just a fashion trend - as was New Criticism - and that things will change again.
  • Blog Post 4: I argue that the lecture still has merit as a teaching and learning tool despite the fact that practically everyone says it doesn’t.

So Question #1 is: Why does Laura Hills keep coming at these blog entries with both fists up and so much vinegar and sass running through her veins?  Do I really just like to argue for argument’s sake?

Yes. When tasked with writing and posting my response to the readings in this course, my first thought each and every time is: What’s wrong? What’s troubling? Where did the author leave himself/herself open for a knockout punch? And, dear readers, what will make for interesting reading for you, my darlings?  I don’t want to tell you week after week what is right or good in what we’re reading. That’s a snooze. I focus instead on what is wrong, where the weaknesses are, where I can stick my scalpel, open the patient wide for you, and expose the hidden infection so you’ll see it and recoil in horror.

What’s most interesting to me about this observation is that in most human interactions, I’m not like this at all. I’m actually a nice person. Really. I am always the one looking for points of agreement between disputants, seeking ways we can achieve consensus, thinking about what makes us more alike than different. Ask the people I work with. Ask my students. They’ll tell you that I dwell on the good and that I’m the heart of the little university where I work. That leads me to:

Question #2: Why am I such a curmudgeon when it comes particularly to intellectual tasks like theoretical dinner table conversations with my husband and reading texts?

I suppose I’m no different from the rats in B. F. Skinner’s famous experiments. I run through my maze and press my little bar time and time again to get my little pellet of food. I argue in these situations because it’s hugely rewarding for me to do so. I’ve made the bulk of my money in my career not as a teacher but as a writer. Sass gets me the big bucks. (Figurative bucks, folks. They’re not all that big.) My ability to argue has also gotten me a bucket of A’s throughout school. Here I am in my last course for my doctoral program - nine years into my graduate school odyssey — and I see that I’ve built my academic career and success hugely upon argumentation. There are big rewards for taking the low road.

Argumentation has also become personally gratifying for me. If I told you in blog posts that Randy Bass and Sheridan Blau have great ideas, I’d not only probably bore you all into a stupor but I’d feel useless. It’s far more interesting, fresher, fun and satisfying for me to spit tacks at them. Frankly, it feels good to land a good one right on the kisser every now and then. In some circles, they call that scholarship. (Sorry, fellow 610-ers, there’s that sass again.)

In the spirit of learning something new this term, I’d like to try an experiment and I need your help. Next week, when we write blog posts based upon our readings, I promise to focus mine entirely on positives. I won’t point out faults or weaknesses or concerns or predict gloom and doom. This will be difficult for me. But I’m willing to play nice just this once to see how it feels. Then I can figure out what to do next.

What I need from you guys is to read what I write next week and to tell me what you think of it - really think of it. I’m going to let the curmudgeon take a holiday. But first, I’m going to join my husband for breakfast. I need to ask him to read this and to tell him that he was right. Oy! - Laura Hills

Entry Filed under: Week 6

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ENGL 610:002 // Spring 2008

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