The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Memories of a rhetoric teacher


I have just placed 60 graded English 1302 essays in the blue,plastic box outside my office. So, I write this article from thesafety of my secret hiding place, underneath my desk. I knowthey’ll be after me soon, demanding to know why I gave themthat horrible grade. A stylish ogre’s life is seldomeasy.  So I retreat to my small, windowless office in thebasement of Dallas Hall. Grrrrrr.

Once the home of the only faculty computer in Dedman, thiscloset has become my dwelling.  Here, I study, trace, marvelat, and at times, create missing logic for student papers. Occasionally, I even have to fill in the blanks.  Actually,what I do is engage in dialogue with each argument, with eachanalysis.  As I respond, I write.  As I read, I weigh andjudge the message, looking at its meaning, its style and itsclarity.  When the essays show sound thinking and hard work,my world enlarges and gets brighter.  I dance around the roomlike Snoopy on his doghouse, my legs a whirl of ovals, a littleVince Guaraldi tune thrumming in the background.

However, when I read the ramblings of an essay sporting ananalysis of a Classics Comics’ Sir Thomas More or aCliff Notes’ Offred, the protagonist of MargaretAtwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, my lair gets darkand gloomy. 

At those times I feel the hair growing on my hands and cheeks,my teeth turning to fangs and my nails to claws.  I rage. Ihowl. I feel like tearing paper to shreds.  Whatever theexperience, it is hardly one that I would describe as human. At these times I exist with only scraps of food, remnants of thepast week’s meals, diet cokes and chewing gum. 

After 17 years of teaching first-year English, I ought to beused to the routine. Just as Dr. Jeykll couldn’t get used toMr. Hyde, I, too, have difficulty resolving this schizophrenicexperience known as teaching.

As the graded-essay trauma passes, I feel myself returning tonormal.  My students once more understand not only that theyhave earned their grades, but that, like a demanding basketballcoach eyeing a place in the Sweet 16, I expect nothing less thantheir best Gatorade-induced efforts. 

The savage full moon has waned, and the students are starting towarm up to me again.  Still, no matter how many times I tellthem that there is a wicked ogre chained up in the basement ofDallas Hall, and that it is she, not I, who grades their papers,they don’t seem to believe me.  How they can hold meresponsible for her nefarious actions, I just don’tknow. 

Am I not the sweet little old lady who always sympathizes withthem so completely? 

Don’t I always understand when they tell me that they haveto miss two extra days of class before spring break because theyhave rented the Julio Iglesias mansion in Acapulco and someone hasto be there early to pay the servants?  

When they come to class bleary-eyed and sleepy after beingchosen to pledge those nice sororities and fraternities,don’t I always give them an understanding smile and tell themjust to let me know if my loud-voiced lecture is keeping themawake? 

Lord knows I would do anything for them, the poor dears. Surely they must understand me, just as I understand them.

Actually, all I want as a teacher is for my students to learnsome writing skills and to refine their thinking skills. Academic success depends largely on one’s sense ofresponsibility and one’s ability to prioritize, both of whichchoices involve a commitment of time.  If the best gift we cangive each other is our time, then I have gained a king’sransom over the years helping students discover and expressthemselves through writing.

Like all my colleagues in the first-year writing program, I amcommitted to perpetuating the “qualities of academic rigor,intellectual adventure and the human concern so fully embodied inthe original Laura Kesselman Devlin” and to the award namedafter her.  As the 2002-2003 recipient of that award, I amgrateful to know that my students and my peers respect myskills.

That they have taken the time to write a teacher recommendationmakes tangible the soothing pat of approval the rhetoric teachermust feel to continue teaching.

Ultimately, I hope the students know that from my cramped cavityunderneath my desk, I have “stressed out” over havingto write this piece. This column is not to be graded, even in whatseems to be justified retribution. Then, although my bite may beworse than my bark, they have become better writers now.


D. J. Kassanoff is a first-year English rhetoric teacher atSMU. She may be reached at [email protected].

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