U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"This Rough Basement" A Professor’s Path to an Uneasy Love of English

A guest post by Alison Mandaville

Teaching is, for me, a terribly selfish indulgence. I wanted to be an astronaut, a landscape designer, a politician, a poet, a track and field star, a composer, a biologist; I wanted to change the world. I never wanted to be a teacher. My parents were teachers. Girls all wanted to be teachers—I thought. And, I knew I wasn’t “all girls.” I would not be a teacher. As an undergraduate, I majored in an interdisciplinary field—Peace and Conflict Studies. I took courses across the curriculum and crafted and individualized an area of study that integrated the arts and sciences. My area of concentration was Women’s Culture. My honors thesis explored trends in reproductive technologies worldwide and women’s self-determination. I planned and executed my own education; I was not a teacher. But like the script from a tired TV comedy, the next scene found me teaching in a sixth grade, multi-lingual, inner city public school classroom in Oakland, California.

The reason I landed there, and finally here, firmly entrenched in the liberal arts, was not that I gave up my other intellectual desires, but that I refused to relinquish any of them. Teaching multiple-subjects as an elementary school teacher allowed me to learn about, and be, everything. For the first time I really understood numbers—both the abstraction and arbitrariness of the base-ten system upon which my study of calculus was founded, but which I never understood. Together with my students I studied biology, chemistry, and astronomy—we were scientists the way I had always longed to be—through hands-on practice, tramping about the neighborhood, testing our knowledge with acrostic poems and role-playing—“I am a water molecule”—instead of multiple-choice definitions. We ran and stretched and raced each other four days a week, members of an all-inclusive sports team. We became skilled etymologists and linguists, as I realized that to those for whom every word is new, “easy” and “hard” have little meaning when applied to vocabulary and grammar. And we were politicians and diplomats, working through one-to-one negotiations, small group problem solving, and class meetings to develop the skills and strategies to handle the societal stresses of race, gender, class, and language and learning differences that found their ways into our classroom nearly every day. We were all changing the world, a little bit.

But I still wasn’t in it for the teaching—I thought. I did finally acknowledge that reading and writing, the literary arts and crafts, seeped into every corner of every subject we studied and became. Assignment: Write instructions to the game of foursquare for a kindergartner. Assignment: Write a villanelle about cell division. Assignment: Use six geometry words in a Tall Tale. Like teaching, reading and writing could be everywhere. And I could be everywhere and everything doing it. When, after seven years in the classroom, I had stitched together enough of my desires through the art and science of language that I no longer feared “giving up” a subject, it was time for graduate school. I completed an MFA in Creative Writing, and then continued in a PhD program in literature to hone and stretch and build on this amazing field of language that enables, enriches, and binds together all of human experience and practice.

Which brings me to love, and to what I really learned in graduate school. I love language. Language gives me this life in which I can create, communicate, and relate to others, realize my interests in so many fields, and change the world. But no love is easy, much less that of language, for me this English, “This rough basement,” as William Blake called it. Any language is a hard lover, and English comes with terrible baggage of marginalization, oppression, colonialism, sexism—you name it—in its very vocabularies and structures. Many of my students of all ages, especially women, minorities, the poor, have felt this terror acutely—and it does its historical, if sometimes obsolete, job. It holds them back, makes them cower, internalizes a grammar and vocabulary of shame and powerlessness.

This terror inherent in language for those using it from a marginal relation became the focus of my research into the literature of women and minorities. Many students come to me holding language and literature at arm’s length, wearing thick gloves. So in every subject area I help students get close again with language, demystify it, find the play in it, practice the innumerable ways to make it theirs and still be heard, to make their home in it—even in its basement. I teach that language is a big part of what makes us human, that it is theirs to hold close and use, and that one can learn practical steps and strategies to do so—at any age. Assignment: Write your thesis question as a poem. Assignment: Write your poem as an essay. Assignment: Discover ten tangential events in the world the year Alice Walker’s Meridian was published. Connect each one to the text in some way. Assignment: Cut apart your essay by paragraphs, cut one paragraph into sentences. Pass to a peer and organize each other’s writing the best way possible to support the central focus of each. Add transition words, sentences as necessary. Explain your arrangement. Assignment: Alexander Pope, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frederick Douglas are appearing together on Giraldo to talk about women and education. Write a script for how the show unfolds.

So, language is learned and practiced in concrete ways—and in particular contexts. And students who learn this through reflective practice gain both confidence and a grounded analysis of how social and cultural positioning in language can shape their scholarly and creative work across and between disciplines. Learning to read, to write, to speak, to do the literary arts, is a dance not only with a contemporary audience of peers, employers, teachers, family, and public; but also with that ancient audience of speakers, readers, and writers who ghost every word we use, every word we make; and, with that imagined audience of those who read and write and speak after us. What is at stake in the access, reception, and production of language then, now, and in the future? What are the impacts of how we read and write, listen and speak now— on both our understanding of the past and present as well as on our hopes and fears for the future? What are concrete steps we can take towards a fuller understanding and more versatile practice of our own reading and writing given the diverse contexts in which we find ourselves? Drawing on the multidisciplinary linguistic sewing project that has been my life, I teach for myself, for love; and to help students find what they love—and how language and the literary arts can support that love. I read and write to live. I teach to change the world. There is little altruism in it.

P.S. If the humanities, and the English language in particular, is to mean anything more in the future of the world than as a tool for business, I believe firmly that students, especially those for whom college is their best hope for an easier life than their parents’, need to know that the literary arts are both useful and beautiful, that a resilient and skilled use of language is not only requisite for doing a “good job” in most careers college prepares one for, but indeed will make that job more pleasurable, more worth doing on multiple levels. I therefore advise and encourage students, and particularly English literature and writing majors to consider the connections between uses and pleasures of language, to begin to look early in their college years at how and where and why skilled literacy matters, at its uses in internships and jobs they are considering, at how the powerful use of language facilitates and enriches all kinds of work, both in the paycheck as well as aesthetically: how in the work world, a thing well-made—whether memo, or advertising copy, or environmental impact statement, or legal judgment, or doctor’s summary of an office visit, can be a beautiful thing—and even more useful for that beauty.