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23 Oct 2019

Advanced Literary Composition

I am behind on my blogposts — with apologies. If you keep reading, you’ll learn why.

I owe you a film review, a book review, two podcast episodes and a classroom/ at home activity, and I will get to all of them, I promise. But I have been teaching two Italian courses at McGill this semester, and they have taken up the lion’s share of my time. One more particularly has given rise to many a late night preparing lessons, proof-reading students’ rough drafts, grading compositions, or giving feedback on online reflection questions.

I have had little time to dedicate to much else, to be honest. But this course has breathed a “teaching” life back into me that had long been dormant or only partially active in my private and small-group classes. The students in the class as much as the course content itself have afforded me a rare opportunity to think through my lessons in new and creative ways and to reconsider the issues I want to teach.

But it’s hard to define what I actually teach. To myself as much as to others. My course is broken down into six units, each with its own focus. Unit topics range from job scarcity in Italy to commercialization, globalization, the fall of the religious state, immigration, war-time grey zone philosophy and the Italian diaspora. I am often asked, “So do you teach language or history?” It’s not a silly question, as I hardly ever describe my course, when asked to, using its title: Advanced Literary Composition. The inevitable follow-up question is always, “Ah. So you teach literature, then?” A logical conclusion. But that’s not quite right, either.

Essentially, I teach students to write better. Or at least that’s the goal of the course. To most people, that means reviewing advanced grammar structures more or less in context. But does it truly mean teaching morphology, syntax, semantics? When to use the subjunctive or the indicative mode? How to use the passive voice? Which conjunctions to use and when, how to jazz up relative pronouns, how to apply an impersonal style of discourse. Writing topic sentences and thesis statements? Does being a better writer boil down to rhetoric?

These queries have led me to reflect on what it means to be a better writer. And before getting back to all the blogposts I owe you, I wanted to share my thoughts on this topic with you.

Being a good writer means being a good reader. And by that I don’t mean knowing how to pronounce the words on a page or even understanding their literal meaning. I mean knowing how to pick up on literary symbols, tone, register, foreshadowing, symmetry, balance. How to recognize subtext and differentiate it from text. How to read skeptically. How to use the larger framework of context or literary theory to interpret a work. How to understand a text’s structure, argumentative style, genre. Being a good reader — and by extension, writer — means reading a lot, frequently, and repeatedly in every style, genre, and category of literature.

But to be a good reader, you must be a good student. Not an ‘A’ student. Not an I-am-always-at-the-top-of-my-class-I-have-a-4.0-GPA-student. But someone willing to put aside their personal and professional prejudices, their innate or acquired biases to learn about a time or place beyond their limited identity and experience. Someone ready to accept criticism and grow from it. Someone eager to think critically. Someone fundamentally interested in a point of view beyond their own not for the ways in which it can enhance their letter grade, but for the ways in which it might change their very thoughts.

In other words, to be a good student, you must be a good listener. That means as much listening to others when they disagree with you as it does looking for the points that bridge the gaps between you and another student. A good listener is not someone who listens only to or for the things they agree with. A good listener suspends his or her own beliefs long enough to consider a situation from the opposite (or at least a contrasting) point of view. Being a good listener means having an open mind, being willing to take in new information, and having the discernment to decide how much of it to accept.

This discernment comes with exposure to different cultures and lifestyles, granted primarily through travel. Traveling opens the mind to larger possibilities. It makes us better listeners, and more critical thinkers, which in turn makes of us good students, good readers, and better writers. It helps us compare and contrast realities so we can pull the best out of whatever situation we are in. So in essence, being a proficient and frequent traveler means being a better writer.

I’m not the only one that thinks so. Many authors have published entire books, sometimes series or collections that are the products of or reflections on the importance of a change of scenery to the creative process. I think of the difference between the way I wrote as an undergraduate and the way I write now, thirteen years later, ten of them spent away from my native land. And I know that while some improvement is surely owed to experience, age, and the maturity that comes with new and marking lived experiences — wifehood, motherhood — most is the direct result of my engagement with people and places far from those of my childhood and family.

That is not a lesson I can directly teach in my classroom. Purtroppo. But I can — and do try to — encourage my students to expose themselves to as many different viewpoints as they can when approaching a text. I urge them to consider as many different voices as possible when completing an assignment. I require them to use as many different tones and registers as they can when formulating first a thought, then the words required to express it. Writing well is first an exercise in self-negation, then an exercise in self-exploration. The first feeds the second. Without it, the dots stay unconnected.

So back to the nature of my course. Advanced Literary Composition. Do I teach Italian, history, or literature? Maybe none of the above. Maybe all I teach is how to be intellectually curious and why we all should be.