This week marked my first week as an adjunct English professor teaching English composition courses at two area colleges. Two things I learned this week: Among the 70 students I have between these two schools, there’s not one English major. The other, all of my students agreed that their school system has failed them.
We talked some about the reasons why they are in school. Some want to get degrees and do something worthwhile. Others are there finding themselves (by their own admission). And still others are there because it is what their parents told them they are going to do. A small contingent in each class lowered their heads and mumbled their discontent when I spoke about how some have no choice but to pursue the profession their parents have picked for them.
Among my students, I like to think that there are dreamers, artists, budding writers, musicians, singers, songwriters, and the like. And there very well may be. But the truth is this last group, those whose future has been sorted out for them, seem the most lost among the students I have the privilege of teaching. Sure, they will exposed to new ideas, different ways of thinking, some good and decidedly bad writing in all of their courses, and not just during peer review work, but reading textbooks and essays and the like.
My job, as it was explained to me by my bosses, was teach students how to write academic papers, perform research, think critically, etc. What I told my students this past week was decidedly different. My job, as someone much more wise than me once said, is to take them out of their comfort zones, bring them into the unknown, and by the end of the semester they will bounce back toward their old comfort zones, but not end up in the same place as before the semester started.
One of my classes, smaller than the other two, let out a collective moan when I introduced the book of poetry we will study later in the semester. And since the campus is nestled in a nice little section of working class Philadelphia I thought what better poet to introduce them to than Russell Edson.
But, but…what does poetry have to do with academic writing? I can see it in their faces. How will this help me become a nurse? An engineer? A physical therapist? A lawyer? A doctor? A software engineer?
In my humble estimation, it has to do with becoming more attuned to the human condition, to sharing that sacred moment of self-discovery the poet experiences, and to contemplate not what is said in a poem but everything that is not.
Yeah, but…why poetry? The question arose last week. All of my students sitting as far back in their seats as humanly possible; arms locked across their chests as attempted to shield themselves from whatever it is young students shield themselves from these days (I suspect the same things I did at their age once upon a time). Because, I told them, it has to do with language. It has to do with written language being a relatively new thing in the history of human beings. A few of them uncrossed their arms. Because it has to do with the power of words, and the effect various words have on each of us. This was the part where they leaned in closer to listen as I stood talking with them. Because, I told them, whether you believe it or not, words by their very origins have an effect on us on a subconscious level; or, more to the point, sounds have that effect. We are, after all, verbal creatures, I said. Storytellers, if you will. And no matter where your ancestors came from, everyone shares that. The power of words and their meanings, the sound of words handed down through the centuries; incantations pure and simple. And then class was over for that day.
My students may think I am crazy. And maybe I am. But I believe poetry can contribute to everyone’s lives; regardless of ethnicity, political leanings, and socio-economic background. Why more people don’t read poetry, I think, has to do with how we are all part of the instant gratification society. It’s as if something is wrong with us if we don’t want now. Poetry is often looked down upon not because it is some antiquated form of expression; no, it very much alive; but because people will cast poetry aside if they “don’t get it.” What I want for my students, at least for those two weeks when I teach Edson, is to pause long enough and forget about the gimme-gimme-gimme mentality. If I can get them to do that, for a just a short time, then maybe when they’re older they will look back and think ‘that was kind of cool.’ I just hope I don’t let them down.