Don't Tell Dad and Mom: What They're Reading at UC Irvine This Fall

In his day job, Mr. Bibteaches required undergraduate Composition at UC Irvine,  where he works hard guiding students to read, write and think critically, to develop scholarly research and analysis skills and--you bet!--engage politically using their newfound civic literacy. Some deal! Despite announcing, unshyly, this divine mission to adults who ask what I teach, I am too often met with, first, the proud declaration "Oh, I hated college writing class!" and then, without a beat, "So, how are the kids at writing these days?" Sheesh. As if the kids--perhaps their own kids, or grandkids--are somehow different than the rest of us, different than them, these young people raised in their homes, their segregated schools, with their bullshit know-nothing politics, not to mention in their domestic sensory isolation units equipped only with television and computers, people who probably voted for Bush, twice (somebody did!) and oppose paying taxes to pay for public education. How are the kids writing? How are you writing, asshole?  Friends, with adults like this in charge of raising the childrens, it's a wonder, to crib from Paul Simon's "Kodachrome," anybody can think at all!

Beyond dealing with the foolishness of the fogies, many of whom haven't read a book in years and apparently didn't review their kids' homework, the larger (and fun) challenge of teaching a college writing class should be obvious to anybody. At least anybody who appreciates the work of teaching any kind of literacy--basic writing, research, civic engagement--to students (and, by extension, their parents) who are, like so much of our citizenry, estranged from these...on purpose, and by design. Most of my students have never read a newspaper or serious magazine book or film review, do not even seem to know that public radio even exists. That's not their fault. (And, by the way, they are immediately delighted to hear the news of a non-corporate public alternative to the crap they're used to.)

To make it work you've got to think of teaching writing as, finally, teaching a foreign language: immersion, practice and, yes, application. And as training in intellectual self-defense, a vital personal skill considering, well, the assault on teachers' unions, the poor, education, the environment. See Corey Robin's excellent recent post, "Why Do People Hate Teachers Unions? Because They Hate Teachers".

Convincing students that the skills learned in a Composition class, of all places, is the way toward a better, fairer, more just society is a hard sell. But it is, of course the fun and potentially rewarding part, the reason many in academia persevere in the face of so much hostility to public education and teachers, collective bargaining, not to mention rampant anti-intellectualism, sports fanaticism, religion, technology pimps promoting their latest gizmos as "learning tools," the chimeric scourge of "activist professors" and, well, the culturally diminished practice of of reading.  

Yet persevere we do. Which is why, of course, writing courses are "hard."  Because thinking is hard.  "No pain, no gain," say the athletics coaches.  (Don't get me started!)  "No pain, no brain," I say. But ever so cheerfully, of course. Murdering ignorance is a good thing.

So, as a public (!) service for all those confused, passive-aggressive, condescending grown-ups who didn't like writing class yet expect, somehow, students to a) give a shit and b) magically become strong writer-thinker-citizens, here's a reading list for you, which just so happens to be what the kids will soon be reading--this week, in fact. Cut and paste, and stick on the fridge. Read these yourself, and then ask a student a serious question about public policy as discussed in all of these terrific books.

First, though, some background.  After a review committee approves them, Writing instructors at UCI choose one of these five fairly recent exemplary texts to use for the quarter, toward introducing students to the strategies, tropes, and formal expectations of research writing. These are not, it should be pointed out, scholarly texts.  They are popular reads, even bestsellers, each selected because they address an urgent public policy problem. They are well written, and often fun. They not only model good writing and research, but offer research topics students themselves can develop into questions, which lead to writing their own modest research essays on a related problem.      

Here, then, the "core texts" used by the Lecturers and Academic Student Employees (formerly "TAs") who teach the kids at UCI.  Starting next week. Since you asked! 

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande.  Super-smart medical doctor who's written for The New Yorker, Gawande teaches at Harvard. He was on President Clinton's Health Care Task Force, and has become a leading critic of the "business model" of health care. Go figure.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.  Veteran education policy scholar, activist and advocate Ravitch is a turncoat, and the pro-corporate "standards" and "testing" crowd are really, really pissed that she tells the truth about the odious No Child Left Behind, which she initially went along with, and the effort to privatize education. Naturally, I'm teaching this one myself.  

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  Great book, well-told story. This is a bestseller you've heard about and perhaps already read, about the cells taken, without her knowledge from a poor, semi-literate and until now anonymous woman whose body and story changed medical science. 

Global  Women: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers, edited by the great progressive 

journalist Barbara Ehrenreich.  This will be at least the third book by Ehrenreich taught at UCI. More anonymous women, victims of the global trade in their lives, bodies, labor. Uh,oh, I am seeing a theme here. These might be, no, wait for it, "liberal" or even "radical" books.

Ashes, ashes, all fall down
Ashes, ashes, all fall down

Bird on Fire: Lessons from  the World's Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross. I admire this case study of the seriously screwed-up megalopolis of Phoenix, AZ though found it likely pretty darn challenging for freshman and sophomore students. Still, plenty of future Social Ecology majors, and Poli Sci types might take to it. The "book description" says it all, which suggests another book a lot of so-called conservative moms and dads won't want to talk about with Junior: "Ross explains how Arizona's increasingly xenophobic immigration laws, science-denying legislature, and growth-at-all costs business ethic [my itals] have perpetuated social injustice and environmental degradation. But he also highlights the positive changes happening in Phoenix, in particular the Gila River Indian Community's successful struggle to win back its water rights, potentially shifting resources away from new housing developments to producing health local food for the people of the Phoenix Basin." 

Now I see it. News flash!  There's a "liberal bias" in higher ed, cuz there's no "conservative" books here. No triumphalist, pro-"free market" or pro-war and capitalism-affirming investigations of problems with policy reflecting those positions. Why not, I wonder? Don't need 'em.  Because there are no problems with these, nope. There's no Dinish D'Souza at all on this crazy, left-wing reading and thinking list, which so clearly illustrates the conspiracy takeover of American colleges and universities by "liberal" America-haters like Mr. Bib.  By the way, did everybody hear
 the debate between the despicable D'Souza and the great Chris Hedges on Sonali Kolhutkar's "Uprising" radio program on KPFK last week? My students will. You can too, here. As Bob Dylan (great new album) once said, "Play fuckin' loud!"

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.  

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