Douglas Hesse

Mountains, classrooms, and concert halls

Page 2 of 4

Snapshots: Thanksgiving, DeWitt, the 60’s

Grandpa Gribbon, Grandpa Krukow, Uncle Dutch

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, better than Christmas.  

There was, of course, the element of being the first fall holiday; when I was a kid, way back before schools had fall breaks, Thanksgiving held uncluttered glory as a four-day vacation. There was the late fall feel, inevitably chilly and cloudy and leafless, sometimes flecked with snow: the kind of weather that beckoned people inside with others.  There was, mostly though, the relative simplicity: family came over (on a Thursday!), and you had a big meal, and grownups talked or played cards.

Here are scattered memories of Thanksgivings at 1122 6th Avenue, DeWitt, Iowa.

Thanksgiving was always at our house, involving a vast turkey that seemed to go in the oven at the crack of dawn or earlier, resulting in white meat the consistency of Styrofoam. It was glorious! It was turkey! Besides, I was in dark meat’s camp. There was nothing better than poaching pieces, especially skin, from the pan as the bird sat resting.  Mom would look the other way for a few swipes, but then you had to sneak.

We had an electric knife, a kind of meat chainsaw, and Thanksgiving was one of the few days a year it got deployed.  Have you seen an electric knife in the past decade?

Dad would peel potatoes into a huge pot of cold water, accumulating a mass of peelings onto a newspaper on the floor, usually sitting at the kitchen table.  Occasionally the need to peel potatoes created urgency sufficient for Dad to miss church, a strategy I admired and envied. Usually, though, we all went to Grace Lutheran, which was two blocks from our house. We drove.

Thanksgiving has little and lousy music. “Over the River and Through the Woods” was drafted in desperation as a Thanksgiving song, though the sleigh ride really promises Christmas.  The top Lutheran hit was “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”  (“First the blade and then the ear/Then the full corn shall appear.”)

The more people at our house, the grander the holiday.  Grandpa and Grandma Gribbon were solid mainstays; Dad was an only child, after all.  My Uncle Dutch and Aunt Uvonne were reliable, too; Grandma G’s brother and wife had no children.  Grandma and Grandpa Krukow at Thanksgiving was a very rare treat, as they needed to ration themselves among four kids. The all-grandparents constellation was rare, forever lost in 1965 with Grandma Krukow’s death.  I was nine. So, I’m reaching back to Thanksgivings when I was but three years older than my grandson Isaac is now.

My Uncle Walt and Aunt Myra (Grandma G’s sister) occasionally came, too, and then so did my dad’s cousin Ron, his wife Sherrie, and their daughters Kelly, Carrie, and Kimberly. They lived in Davenport. Out of town company! Kids! This scenario required at least one, sometimes two card tables in the living room.

Dinner was noon or close thereunto. The evening meal was supper. Always. 

Almost never did anyone in the early days watch football. We did watch the Macy’s parade, and the Mummer’s, that strange display of feathered men.

Thanksgiving dinner always include a relish tray: carrots, celery, pickles, and olives.  It was the rare time that we had black olives.  We kids would stick them on ends of four fingers, waving our “rings” before eating them. We would dip celery into little crystal salt cellars at each plate—the only time these ever came out.

As I got older, I often volunteered to make the whipped cream for the (always) pumpkin pie. Of course, this was a pretext for being left in the kitchen with the cream, sugar, vanilla, and a beater, the process involving so much sampling that it’s a wonder I didn’t contract Sudden Onset Diabetes. Did Mom really have no clue?

Thanksgiving was the rare day when coffee got made in the afternoon, in a big stove-top percolator into which Mom would put an egg.  I really should look up this odd practice.

A couple of times Dad and Uncle Ron would go pheasant hunting in the afternoon, and I’d get to join, with my .410.  We’d drive up to farms around Lost Nation where dad had spent some of his childhood. We never shot anything that I can remember, so I think the point was mostly to get out of the house.  At least once, I remember we went “road hunting,” which Dad usually scorned but somehow deemed appropriate this one time; that meant driving slowly and looking for pheasants in ditches, then an elaborate ploy of driving past, stopping the car to unload shotguns, then creeping back through the ditch to flush the pheasant.  But as I said, this was all theoretical, since we never shot anything, and that wasn’t the point.

When I was in junior high, I’d started working with Dad on the trash truck. The Friday after was a double-route day, two trucks in full operation, two days’ trash in one. The exciting aspect was getting to have a friend working with me, often Kirk Anderson or Joe Ryan.

The pies sat on the dryer in the laundry room, where it was cooler.

If the Davenport contingent was at Thanksgiving, right before they went home, we drew names to exchange gifts at an annual Christmas party, which revolved among homes on my Dad’s side. 

But Thanksgiving was ours.

Almost Welcome to Denver

Denver Union Station after a Rockies Baseball Game, August 2019 –Doug Hesse

The 2020 National Council of Teachers of English convention was to have been in Denver this week, and I was local arrangements co-chair, along with Jill Adams, also of the Colorado Language Arts Society. Ah, well. Following is the Welcome to Denver I wrote in May 2020. It would have appeared in promotional materials. It has a touristy cast, but I tried to convey some deeper sense of the place, befitting the convention theme. NCTE Program Chair Alfredo Luján had chosen the theme ¡Confluencia! Songs of Ourselves, which was perfect for this city.

Welcome to Denver

Denver is a vibrant, progressive, historical, multicultural city with an energetic downtown surrounding its convention center. From that center and the convention hotels, you can easily and safely walk to dozens of performance venues and movie theaters, to world-class museums and cultural centers, and to countless restaurants and nightspots, from James Beard-winning venues to diners, brew pubs, cabarets, and jazz clubs. Many are along the 16th Street, a mile-long, tree-lined pedestrian promenade, along Larimer Square, the city’s oldest block, or in nearby walkable neighborhoods. People not only work and play downtown, they live here. 

Cultural opportunities abound. Only two blocks from the convention center is the Denver Performing Arts Complex, the second largest in the country, with ten theaters for plays, symphony, opera, ballet, and Broadway shows. November visitors will have their choice of events.  Dozens of other theatres, comic clubs, and performance spaces dot the city, from the innovative Buntport, Bug, and Curiosity theatre companies to famous music venues such as the Paramount, the Fillmore, the Ogden, the Bluebird, and The Mission Ballroom.  

In the mid 19th century, even before Denver had a school or hospital, it had a performance of Macbeth in a local saloon. The primacy of a saloon, befitting a city begun in the 1850’s gold rush, presaged Denver’s current 150+ craft breweries, pubs, and tap rooms, second in the nation.

Many of Denver’s distinctive, thriving neighborhoods are just 5-10-minutes away. Should you have the inclination, the glorious Rocky Mountains and foothills are but thirty minutes from the convention.  Some of Denver’s 200 parks are actually in the mountains, including Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which Rolling Stonenamed the best outdoor concert venue in the world, and Genesee Park, home of the city’s own buffalo herd, descendants of the last wild bison brought here from Yellowstone in 1914.

Even if you don’t get to the mountains, you’ll see them dominating the western horizon, with over 200 visible named peaks, thirty of them over 13,000’. While the mountains will likely be festively snow-capped for NCTE in November, Denver itself will probably be warm, clear, and dry.  It’s sunny over 300 days a year here on the high rolling plains, and with only 14 inches of annual precipitation, the air will be bright and crisp. How nice is the weather? The city’s 90 golf courses are open year-round. There are 850 miles of off-street bike trails.

The Denver Art Museum, its stunning building designed by Daniel Libeskind, has an astonishing permanent collection and features top level exhibitions, recently including Van Gogh, Monet, and Dior. The Museum of Contemporary Art, the American Museum of Western Art, the Kirkland, the Clyfford Still, and dozens of galleries in the Santa Fe and Tennyson art districts round out the visual arts.  The Cleo Parker, Wounderbound, and Colorado Ballet dance companies highlight the kinetic. 

The $120 million History Colorado Center presents an expert and honest history of extraordinary artifacts and narratives. The museum highlights travesties as well as triumphs. including the centuries before Colorado’s the Gold Rush led to statehood, time when the Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Utes, Apaches, and Comanches and others lived on this land. 

Denver is a proudly diverse city. Over 31 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino descent and 10 percent African American.  The city holds the nation’s largest Cinco de Mayo celebration and largest Martin Luther King Jr. march and rally.  The Chicano Humanities & Arts Council has a gallery and cultural center and promotes Chicano/Latino visual arts, literature, music, and dance. 

The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library is located in the historic Five Points neighborhood, once known as the “Harlem of the West” and a frequent stop for jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Miles Davis.  Jack Kerouac knew Five Points well from his time living in Denver; you can visit sites he wrote about in On the Road

If you fly to Denver, you’ll arrive at America’s fifth-busiest airport, an architecturally distinctive terminal with convenient and inexpensive light-rail service directly downtown.  The airport train arrives at Union Station, a completely renovated 19th century grand work of architecture whose main hall is surrounded by restaurants, bookstores, and boutiques. 

Union Station sits at the heart of lower downtown (LoDo, to locals) a center of nightlife and day life, home to everything from Coors Field and the Colorado Rockies, to the world famous Tattered Covered Bookstore and the venerable Rockmount Ranch Wear, inventor of the western snap shirt. At Rockmount you could run into Kevin Costner or John Legend, Anne Hathaway, Jack Black, or Bonnie Raitt, all of whom have bought its iconic clothing. The adjoining River North (RiNo) Art District, with its galleries, food halls, pubs, distilleries, and markets, was named one of the “one of the top 10 neighborhoods to visit in the U.S.” by Lonely Planet.

What else? Denver has seven professional sports teams, highlighted by the Broncos, Rockies, Nuggets, and Avalanche.  There’s an amusement park direclty downtown, near the Aquarium, along the South Platte River.  A gold-domed State Capitol. Botanical Gardens. Museum of Science and Nature. The Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.  A civic plaza that drew 200,000 to the initial Women’s March and tens of thousands to the student-led Climate March on Denver. A respected LGBT community. An outdoors-oriented population regularly cited as one of the healthiest in America. A large, diverse school system and multi-branched public library. Colleges and Universities ranging from the University of Denver to the University of Colorado Medical School to Metro State and the Community College of Denver.  Teachers dedicated to the arts of language, to an educated citizenry, and to their students.

Denver is a sanctuary city of people who are tolerant, civic-minded, multicultural, and energetic: committed to the environment, to children, to opportunities for all, to a sustainable and just future.  You are all welcome here.

–Doug Hesse

The First National Day on Writing, October 20, 2009

I was involved in planning the first National Day on Writing for the National Council of Teachers of English, which created a gallery of thousands of pages of every day writing from around the country and hosted hundreds of events. The image above is from an event we hosted in the University of Denver Writing Program. I was the curator for the Colorado gallery, which, alas, is lost to time along with the entire gallery.

Here’s the NCTE flyer for the original event. And here’s an article from the September 2009 Council Chronicle about the day.

What I wrote then:

Let’s imagine America writing.

Let’s imagine essayists and auditors, poets and nurses, tweeters and technicians, blogging beauticians, church bulletin scribes, advocates and analysts, authoring.

Let’s imagine memoirs and memos, rants and remembrances, oral histories, letters to the future, postcards from the past, profiles profane and sacred, instructions, directions, reflections, retorts, factual and fancied.

Let’s imagine a living American gallery of writing checked with salons, fitted by school or site, by genre or by identity, but most importantly by you, salons in which a homeless man’s story hangs next to the finance major’s wedding vows.

Let’s imagine school kids linked to college students, teachers to professors, and all to city halls, shelters, board rooms, all linked by writing.

Let’s gather writers who’d never thought themselves that: mothers, bus drivers, fathers, and veterans. Let’s have sharings, coffees, contests silly and celebratory, so that the national gallery of writing has myriad outposts, local and physical. Let’s open our writing centers to our communities.

Let’s imagine October 20 and all this embodied in a National Day on Writing, a day when we cut the digital rope on our Gallery, when the Norman Mailer Writers Colony gives creative nonfiction awards to high school and college writers in a gala ceremony sponsored by famed New York writers, students whose work has been supported and selected by NCTE members. 

Actually, that day is planned. What’s needed to make it happen is you. Please help.

—Doug Hesse, National Council of Teachers of English member, former chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and director of Denver University’s University Writing Program.  

Planting in the American Twilight

“If the world will end tomorrow, I’ll plant an apple tree today.” A couple decades ago, Susan Burt, my then-colleague at lllinois State University had a poster with this declaration hanging on her office door. It was in German, its ostensible author someone like Goethe. Apfelbaum. I always admired the stoic, peaceful, foolhardy sentiment of the saying, not least for its implication that the speaker’s life was in enough balance that he could simply do today what he did every day, and that would be sufficient.

It feels like we have come to this day in America, and the decision confronts me: plant or despair?

The next paragraph is blunt, so skip it if you’d like. Actually skip the one after that, too, as it contains the word “turd,” and I know I won’t be proud of that in a few days.

It’s outlandish for me to say that tomorrow comes the apocalypse when we have been living a social nightmare for so long under the malicious, ignorant, self-aggrandizing regime of Donald John Trump and his minions–the 35% of the American population that delights in mooning (and impoverishing and sickening and disenfranchising) the 65%. What makes tomorrow more eventful than, say, the first day The Republican lied to the American people about Covid, the day The Republican put toddlers in cages, the day The Republican quit climate agreements, the day The Republican paid a prostitute $130,000, ridiculed American soldiers, praised Nazis, and on and on and on and on?

Why is tomorrow worse? Because the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg reveals our full national political depravity.* I leave eloquent reflections on RBG to Monica Hesse, focusing instead on one stark fact. In 2016, The Republicans declared 236 days before the election that they would not meet to discuss the appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. In 2020, The Republicans, despicable hypocrites, declared 45 days before the election, that they plan to approve a Trump nominee. Mitch McConnell has gone beyond mooning American to proudly dropping a fat Kentucky public turd and asking us all to admire his integrity.

*yes, I know more is to come.

Like most people I know, I’ve reached pretty much Full Pessimism Capacity. Sure, I fret about a 6-3 Supreme Court with intellectual heavyweights like Thomas and Kavanaugh and, soon to come, Judge Judy or Kid Rock. But more than that, I despair that sheer partisan political f-you-ism has reach its apotheosis. The curtain in the Temple, the political curtain of trying/seeming to act on behalf of all Americans, had been little more than gauzy scrim fora long time. Today, that curtain has not only been torn but used as toilet paper.

I’ll vote, of course, and I’ll give money to candidates, and I’ll hope that enough Americans choose to flush The Republican and his idolators that we can start rebuilding actual American values in the coming year, values of truth, competence, equality, service, and honor for all people, all endowed with certain inalienable rights, even Blacks, Mexicans, Jews, Muslims–and even women.

Beyond those minimal motions, on a day like today, it’s mighty tempting to say, “It’s over,” and just put your affairs in order.

But this morning I found myself planting mums in the front yard. It’s a decades-long habit, this going to a garden center in September, buying some yellow, orange, or burnt red plants, setting them out for fall color. Fall is here, winter is coming, and things will die. It’s a vain, impractical practice to buy plants that will die in a couple of months just to make a fraction of the world prettier for a fatally short time. And yet there is a weird consolation of carrying on as if the world is not covidding into disarray.

I did something even more audacious this morning. I spent two hours meeting with Colorado Language Arts Society board members. Here were a dozen school teachers from across the front range and the eastern plains, teachers who have by now spent heroic weeks teaching, many of them at risk in face to face classes, all of them with countless daily hours at computers in virtual meetings, much of of these efforts at the behest of administrators and publics who have almost no clue what they’re asking these professionals to do. And yet these very same teachers were giving up Saturday morning to sit in front of screens, doing the hard work of helping English teachers across the state of Colorado improve learning for Colorado’s students.

It was utterly humbling to be among mostly women (all but three) of such resolve and good will. There were about a dozen of us: two of us 60+ geezers, a couple in their forties, three or four were 30-somethings, three or four 20-somethings. They are at the front lines of shaping the quality of things for teachers and students. Whatever good happens in schools will come from people like them.

The first twenty minutes were spent sharing stories of impossible situations around the state–and how these teachers had made things better. Then we moved into planning and budgets, building resources, amplifying teacher voices, creating help and hope. Did they not know the world was ending? Did they not see the folly of thinking beyond tomorrow on a day like today?

I watched them plant apple trees.

After I set in my mums, I walked to where I’d been watching a volunteer daisy creep up through a crack between sidewalk and rock fill. I actually hadn’t been sure what it was until it flowered this week. Curiosity kept me from pulling it. I have daisies elsewhere in our yard, two and three feet tall, large flowers atop leafy stems. This volunteer daisy is in many ways a pitiful approximation, a few inches tall, not even able to launch a stem. And yet against every odd, completely alone, planting itself, it desperately flowered, as if to declare, “I’m here! I matter!”

Some images and metaphors are too plain and too profound for explication.

On the First Day of College

My sister and me, probably 1962, first day of school

In August 1974, my parents took me to Iowa City for my freshman year at the University of Iowa. It took but two trips from the Dodge station wagon parked on Clinton Street up to 2226 Burge Hall (aka The Zoo), a triple I shared with Dale, a big guy from Bondurant who wanted to be a doctor, and Kevin, a trumpet player from Pleasant Valley who wanted to be a band director. Kevin would accomplish that and even go on to direct ensembles 20+ years later at Iowa before a scandal brought him down. Dale left school after one year. I met both of them that day in 2226 Burge.

I remember profound loneliness walking back into the dorm after my parents pulled away. Only 25 years later did I come close to understanding what they felt, what it was like to leave your first child to academia, on a September afternoon walking from the Bryn Mawr Campus to the Bryn Mawr station, to catch trains back to the Philadelphia airport. Monica’s mom and I had moved her into a triple, and the College had prepared an afternoon of activities that culminated in a clear signal to parents: You Need to Leave Now. So we did, Dawn to her minivan, me to United Airlines. There was then Andrew’s first day at Illinois Wesleyan in 2003 and Paige’s first day at DePaul in 2006. For over a decade, I had a close perspective on college through the eyes of students, my kids, and then it was done. Ever since, I’ve become more distanced from how the world looks to freshmen, whom I’ve taught 40 years, beginning in 1980 at Findlay College, when I was six years older than my students. Freshmen are first-years now, of course.

I think of all this September 14, 2020, the first day of classes at the University of Denver. The parents have long left, having dropped kids strangely into dorms distanced by Covid, half capacity, only Mom or Dad (not both) allowed to visit rooms where they first meet masked classmates, carrying the heavy burden of not getting each other fatally sick.

Professors have struggled all summer to figure how to teach classes partly in person to students whose lips and chins they’ll ever see only on computer screens. We’ve fined and refined online components of courses, planning for the day we’re made to shut down every physical element and move it all to Zoom and Canvas. Students will not chat with us in our offices or over a coffee or in the library book stacks, the library now closed except to a few classes that meet in a big room. We will not linger with colleagues after talks, in receptions, passing one another on the college greens. We will not stop to watch a late afternoon soccer match, listen to a chorus rehearsal, wander through a gallery and be surprised by a student’s watercolor.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a first-year student in 2020, and my heart simply goes out to them. Today should be a nervous thrill: their first college classes after a weekend of hanging out with new roommates and classmates, in a new city, cleaved at last from home: homesick, perhaps, but future-forward. But now? It’s well-placed paranoia in a makeshift fragile world that a few weeks’ experiences at other colleges tells them–and their professors–cannot last until too many cases bring everything down.

As a professor, now senior in both senses of the word, I feel a great responsibility to these students and to my younger colleagues, all with years ahead of them. I think of Joan Didion’s poignant essay, “On Going Home,” where she writes in the 1960s of bringing her daughter back to her own childhood house in Sacramento for the baby’s birthday. Didion is flooded with memories incomprehensible to her husband, John Dunn, and certainly to her daughter, Quintana, both of whom will tragically die decades later. Didion writes in dust on window sills and desperately thinks of the birthday gift she would like to give but of course cannot: “I want to give her home.”

I wish I could give my students college.

My first day at college came a couple of weeks after Richard Nixon finally resigned, confronted by a congress that could still act responsibly. My first night at college, I found myself at a bar for the first time in my life, drinking my first beer, a Pabst Blue Ribbon. The legal drinking age in Iowa was 18 in those days, and while I’d been 18 a month, I was a shy “nice” kid. Ah, the puritanical folly. Bill Davis, who lived down the hall and would become one of three longtime roommates, took me downtown, around the corner from Joe’s place to a bar long gone and whose name I can’t recall. With wide worldly knowledge, Bill told the bartender, “A Blue,” and I of course copied. I clearly remember thinking, “So this is college. What in the hell are you doing?”

My First-Year Writing Syllabus, Winter 2019

I’m teaching WRIT 1122, Rhetoric and Academic Writing, at the University of Denver in the winter of 2019. My students are all in their first year at DU. Here’s my basic description of the course, from my syllabus.


This course will focus on your development as an ethical nonfiction writer for serious readers in the public sphere, emphasizing rhetorical principles. You’ll learn several rhetorical concepts, and you’ll think critically about how writers use them to engage, inform. and persuade readers. You’ll practice those concepts and strategies in your own writing, and you’ll frequently have choices of topics, including for your longer projects. 

Four terms in the brief paragraph above are important to this course.  There are many types of writing, of course, but we’re focusing on nonfiction: writing based in fact or events as they happened. Regardless of too many irresponsible claims these days, there are such things as facts and truth, and they matter.  Nonfiction writing can have purposes of informing, persuading, entertaining, expressing and so on.  Nonfiction does not mean “plain” or “artless.”  The public sphereis a wide concept perhaps best understood by what it’s not: not academic writing (pieces written only for professors or academic readers), not professional/vocational writing (pieces written in workplaces, to conduct business or a profession), not personal writing (pieces that writers make for themselves or close friends).  All of those other kinds of writing are important, clearly; we’re just focusing on the public sphere.  Rhetorical conceptsare principles and strategies that people can use to engage others, often for purposes of persuasion, concepts that have been developed and refined for over two millennia.   Rhetoric often has a bad name, something similar to “opportunistic” or “exploitative” or, even, “divorced from reality.”  There can be unethical writers and speakers, unfortunately, and we’re experiencing some of them these days.  But rhetoric is actually a productive, useful art.  Hence the last important term: ethical.  Ethical writers care about truth and responsibility. They’re committed to pursuing not only what’s best for themselves but also for others. Of course, good people can disagree, but they can—and should—do so ethically. 

Four terms in the brief paragraph above are important to this course.  There are many types of writing, of course, but we’re focusing on nonfiction: writing based in fact or events as they happened. Regardless of too many irresponsible claims these days, there are such things as facts and truth, and they matter.  Nonfiction writing can have purposes of informing, persuading, entertaining, expressing and so on.  Nonfiction does not mean “plain” or “artless.”  The public sphereis a wide concept perhaps best understood by what it’s not: not academic writing (pieces written only for professors or academic readers), not professional/vocational writing (pieces written in workplaces, to conduct business or a profession), not personal writing (pieces that writers make for themselves or close friends).  All of those other kinds of writing are important, clearly; we’re just focusing on the public sphere.  Rhetorical conceptsare principles and strategies that people can use to engage others, often for purposes of persuasion, concepts that have been developed and refined for over two millennia.   Rhetoric often has a bad name, something similar to “opportunistic” or “exploitative” or, even, “divorced from reality.”  There can be unethical writers and speakers, unfortunately, and we’re experiencing some of them these days.  But rhetoric is actually a productive, useful art.  Hence the last important term: ethical.  Ethical writers care about truth and responsibility. They’re committed to pursuing not only what’s best for themselves but also for others. Of course, good people can disagree, but they can—and should—do so ethically.


Our main readings will come from current professional media, primarily including The Washington Post and The New York Times, but occasionally also from The New Yorker, Harpers, and The Atlantic. These are available free to DU students, and I’ll provide directions for accessing them. Each of the readings will require time and effort, with particular attention to matters of craft, that is the choices of idea, form, style, and voice that their authors made, as well as the effects of those choices.  Don’t just skim.  You’ll need to read each piece at least a couple of times, maybe even more, the first time for pleasure and insight, the subsequent times to understand techniques and strategies.  Read like a writer. I will also provide some readings on concepts and strategies for writing.


Writing is a skill that continues to develop throughout life, as writers encounter new kinds of genres, purposes, and readerships that require new kinds of skills.  Of course, as you acquire more skills and experiences, you have more from which to draw in new situations.  But learning to write has some things in common with learning to play the piano. You might say you can play the piano when you’re able to get through “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” just as you might say you can write when you can write “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” or a five paragraph theme on “Someone I Admire.”  But playing a Beethoven sonata or writing a New York Timesop ed require magnitudes of ability beyond.  I assume you’re competent writers because you’re at DU and in this class.  My goal is to make you a better writer by introducing some concepts and challenges and pressing you to learn and meet them.  Everyone can get better.  Though I’ve published a lot and generally feel pretty confident, I’m still developing as a writer.

You learn to write by writing and getting feedback—through guided practice.  Ten weeks is not a long time, but we can do a lot with it.  The first several weeks of the quarter will feature a series of short writings (500-750 words or so) due most class meetings.  The last couple of weeks will entail developing at least a couple early writings into polished pieces of 1000-3000 words or so.  A final portfolio of 6000 finished words will come from your writing across the quarter.

The short writings in this class will fall into three types.  You’ll do several Exercisesdesigned to practice specific techniques and strategies.  You’ll also do several Response/Analyses, which will involve your choosing a piece of current nonfiction from one of the periodicals I’ve identified for the class, writing a brief synopsis of it, explaining your response to the piece (agreement, disagreement, connection, complication, or implication), and explaining one or more rhetorical strategies you see at play.  For each each of these out-of-class short writings, give yourself enough time to revise and polish.  While there are benefits to drafting quickly to generate ideas and explore experience, you’ll need to revise and refine, making every word count.  The third type of short writing will be in-class exercises. These will be often be generative and experimental; take them seriously, but obviously they don’t allow the kinds of revision that out-of-class pieces do.

The longer polished pieces (projects) will grow out of this earlier work.  I’ll ask you to choose two or three ideas from the first part of the class and develop each into a piece of modest length of a kind that might be submitted as an article to a periodical or website that publishes nonfiction for serious readers.  I’ve cleared out the last couple of weeks of the course for developing these projects, and I’ll offer advice, respond to drafts, and so on.  Others in the class will also share their insights.  We’ll work as a supportive group of writers.

You’ll cap the quarter by turning in a portfolioof work from the term.  That portfolio will include revised, polished versions of the long pieces, as well as some revised examples from the short writings. You’ll also write an introduction to the portfolio (about 500-750 words) , explaining what it demonstrates about your writing in relation to the course goals. 

One last thing.  While writing takes effort and can be frustrating, I absolutely believe it’s also rewarding and, dare I say it, even fun.  There’s an element of intrigue in trying to figure things out through writing—a puzzling challenge that others can help you solve.  And there’s an element of pride at seeing your ideas crafted into words.  I hope this class provides some pleasure as well as some practical knowledge.

Course Goals                            

  • Demonstrate practical knowledge of the concept “rhetorical situation,” through the abilities both to analyze and to write effectively in different kinds of situations.
  • Demonstrate proficiency with basic elements of rhetorical analysis (such as logos, ethos, and pathos) in a range of texts, and the application of that facility in their own writing.
  • Demonstrate the ability to produce writing that effectively provides evidence and reasoning for assertions, for audiences of educated readers.
  • Demonstrate the ability to incorporate and attribute or document source material in rhetorically effective ways.
  • Demonstrate the ability to use feedback to revise their own writing and the ability to provide useful feedback to others.
  • Demonstrate the ability to edit and proofread their writing.

What do these goals mean?  We’ve explained each at  That page also discusses features common to all WRIT courses at DU. 

Writing Programs as Squanto

This morning I was reminded (I won’t go into why) of a talk I gave at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in 2000.  Some conditions I was addressing nearly two decades ago have changed, but the failure persists to recognize that certain areas of higher education have long taken teaching very seriously.  Chief among them is composition studies.  4/8/18  DH

Writing Programs as Squanto, Welcoming the Tall Ships of Teaching Reform

Douglas Hesse
Conference on College Composition and Communication
April 2000

Higher education has discovered teaching.  There are, surprise, students in classrooms, and students are, just maybe, complicated subjects.  There are, surprise, ways of teaching beyond having students listen, read, and report.  There might be, surprise, some need for college teachers to know theory and research on teaching. And just maybe this knowledge and experience and ability could actually count in tenure and promotion.  People who have discovered all these things range from deans to trustees to, even, a recent president of the Modern Language Association.

This last person declared in a July Chronicle of Higher Education article that, “Everyone complains these days that we don’t train graduate students to teach, but no one ever seems to do anything about it” (Elaine Showalter).  Apparently, “no one” includes the hundreds of writing program directors around the country who for decades have mentored new teachers, led preservice workshops, taught courses in composition pedagogy, published articles on teaching writing.  I repeat her claim: “Everyone complains these days that we don’t train graduate students to teach, but no one ever seems to do anything about it.”  In contrast, this author has been brave, has forged a new path through the virgin pedagogical wilderness of English studies; her bibliographic breadcrumbs are twelve books, all of them generically about teaching, only one (by Jane Thompkins) even from the broad field of English studies.  One speculates that, for this writer, publishers like NCTE or Boynton/Cook Heinemann do not exist.

By you have caught my tone and rightly fear that you’re in the presence of a polemic.

So let me get the worst out of the way and put my argument in a nutshell.  As departments, colleges, institutions, and governing boards “discover” teaching, they are like Columbus discovering America, replacing cultures of teaching that already exist, especially within composition studies.  New sites for the promotion of pedagogy emerge, things like Centers for Teaching Excellence. General education reforms address not only the “what” of course requirements but also the “how” of pedagogy.

Leading many of these efforts are writing programs and their directors, who after all have long lived on the land of teaching.  I liken us to Squanto, the “good Indian” from my sixth grade social studies class, who helped the Mayflower Pilgrims, people so clueless they didn’t know enough to toss dead fish or manure among the planted corn.  At least that’s what I remember.  But even as writing programs show their savvy and warm hearts, I fear that our leadership will ultimately go unrecognized or forgotten.  To put it most strongly, because of the historical devaluation of writing programs, the knowledge of teaching located within those cannot count as “real” knowledge.

At several “prestigious” universities either there is no freshman writing requirement or there is no extensive development program for those assigned to teach in it.  If you are a notable personage within English studies who happens to teach at such an institution, it is relatively easy—and extraordinarily self-interested—to declare that “no one ever seems to do anything” about teaching.  The recent celebration of teaching, then, ironically functions further to marginalize composition studies, whose historical identity has been entwined with pedagogy.

At this point, I know I should qualify things.  What is the difference between PhD-granting and non-PhD granting institutions, between historically strong and active writing programs and mere place holders, between large schools and small?  How do arguments about abolishing the universal freshman writing requirement intersect with this general education reform?  And, most importantly, why should we care?  I mean, is it just a matter of ego that that composition studies should get credit for having been concerned about teaching apparently long before other disciplines have been?

I’ll tell you why I do care, but I’ll do it obliquely, focusing on just one site of contention, the increasingly emergent freshman seminar courses.

By the mid 1990’s, over 720 American colleges and universities offered some kind of freshman seminar.  These seminars fall into four main types.  The most common are “extended orientations,” usually for one credit, and concentrate on advising, introducing campus resources such as the library or counseling center, exploring careers and so on.  A second type of seminar deals with basic study skills: time management, campus policies, note taking, and so on.  The third and fourth types are broadly characterized as “academic seminars,” usually three or more credit courses concentrating on some interdisciplinary topic, perhaps including some orientation or study skills components but really focusing on a theme or issue.  Such seminars have been around for decades, especially at liberal arts colleges. Sometimes they exist in conjunction with required composition, sometimes instead of it.  A liberal arts college about a dozen blocks from my own office discarded freshman writing a few years ago, for complex reasons including a perception that not having freshman writing enhanced the prestige of the place.

What I now find interesting, though, is the slow movement at some larger universities to institute such courses.  There are complicated reasons why, but I want to sketch three of them.   The first is a movement channeled through organizations like AAHE and AAC&U to improve the quality of the undergraduate experience.  Calls for student-centered classrooms, interactive inquiry-based learning, and process-directed teaching are familiar to us in composition studies.  Their motivations are a mix of intellectual altruism, yes, but also an economic pragmatism whose fuels are retention, legislative and governing board funding, and a suspicion of  “lazy” professors who ought to teach more to earn their keep.

The Boyer Commission’s report on Reinventing Undergraduate Education is a convenient distillation of many of these ideas.  In addition to an Academic Bill of Rights, the report suggests ten ways to change undergraduate education.  Of particular interest is number five: “Link communication skills and course work.”  Listen to this recommendation:

“The freshman composition course should relate to other classes taken simultaneously and be given serious intellectual content, or it should be abolished in favor of an integrated writing program in all courses.  The course should emphasize explanation, analysis, and persuasion and should develop the skills of brevity and clarity. . . .  Writing courses need to emphasize writing ‘down’ to an audience who needs information, to prepare students directly for professional work” (25).

Now, this is quite a remarkable recommendation.  I could say much about the view of writing embodied here, especially the utilitarian values signaled by brevity and clarity and the view of writing as transmission and the direction of that transmission as always down.  Apparently for the authors of this language, the values do not clash with the call for “serious intellectual content” and the implied need at least occasionally to write to knowledge peers and experts.

But more pertinent is the claim that freshman writing courses must depend on other courses because they lack serious intellectual content.  I’ll acknowledge that courses at some schools do, usually because they are grounded in some untheorized curriculum of hyperformalism, the modes of discourse, or discrete arhetorical skills.  But the statement implies that such is the current general state of freshman writing.  More subtly the statement raises questions about the nature of “content.” Can the knowledge and practice of rhetorical strategies constitute “real content?”  For the Boyer commission, the answer to this old question is apparently no.

These assumptions align with a second joist for freshman seminars.  Various writers have called for tempering large freshman lectures with at least some small, interactive courses.  Yet the freshman writing class, which has performed such a role for decades, seems now not to count.  Partly this is because writing courses presumably lack “serious intellectual content.”  Partly this is because the presumably lack “real professors.”  The vicious circle of this reasoning we all know well. Anyone can teach freshman writing, including faculty spouses, graduate assistants, and itinerant part-timers.  The economic reasons that drive institutions to staff composition adjunctally demand that they view writing as teachable by many, unless those institutions want to be overtly cynical.  Ironically, the actions of many of us who direct writing programs support this assumption.  We declare the success of our training programs, justify our curricula and policies to colleagues and students, write program assessments.  An even deeper irony is that as writing directors embrace alternative staffing models in the name of economic fairness, most notably in two-tiered arrangements, they buttress assumptions about writing as the work of academic primitives.

But what do faculty want to teach?  This brings me to a third joist of the freshman seminar movement.  Mostly they don’t want to teach writing courses as writing courses.  Given several circumstances who can blame them?  Except for those graduate students working centrally in rhetoric and composition studies, most continue to know little of the professional literature concerning writing and its teaching.  A few may hedge their job market bets by banking a course or two, and many have experienced good TA training programs.  Still, interest and respect for teaching writing is proportional to knowledge about the field.  I do extensive consulting and program evaluation and regularly meet English faculty of enormous commitment and good will who nonetheless find teaching writing pure drudgework.  Locked in the modes of discourse or paragraph patterns, they see the courses as important but ultimately without a single consolation.

In response, some liberal arts colleges have perhaps become bellwethers.  Having no teaching assistants and having English faculty primarily trained and hired in literary studies, with perhaps one writing specialist who may or may not be tenurable and who may be in a writing center and not a department, those colleges may have little beyond tradition to support freshman composition. Alternatives like seminars, ostensibly writing intensive, have every appeal to the faculty who would teach them and to the administrators who recognize staffing flexibilities and course titles alluring to students.

Lord knows they appeal to me, too.  Consider a scattered set of titles: “The Nature of Wisdom,” “A Genealogy of Freedom,” “Gender Issues in Sport,” “Time in Contemporary Music,” and so on. At a September meeting in New York on staffing in English, several of us agreed that departments were going to get more tenure line positions only if permanent faculty demonstrated a commitment to teaching freshman. As a corollary, Jim Slevin argued that faculty would willingly teach writing only if those of us in composition studies backed off from the true doctrines of the writing faith and let teachers follow their own interests.  Topical freshman seminars do resonate with curricula like Bartholomae and Petroskey’s “Ways of Reading” or Bizzell and Herzberg’s “cultural cases” or any number of post process courses.  But there is a significant difference between a “writing intensive” thematic seminar taught by a well-intentioned faculty member whose training consists of some faculty workshops and the same seminar as taught by someone with a professional interest in teaching writing.  I wonder, though, if the difference is as substantial as it once was.

When I read a version of this paper at the MLA meeting in Chicago, Susan Miller raised a concern that neither new rhet/comp PhD’s nor old 4C’s sorts seemed much interested these days in teaching undergraduate writing.  I’ve had this conversation several times in the past year, and what I think those of us who feel this way sense is a shift from writing as craft–the generating and shaping of texts for reasons aesthetic and rhetorical, grounded in linguistics–to a view of writing as a cultural phenomenon.  Our graduate programs increasingly focus on what writing means rather than how writers work.  I admit that mine are likely the nostalgic concerns of a generation of writing teachers schooled in the late seventies and early eighties.  I note with irony that my own remarks perform the very deferral that concerns me, exploring meta issues of disciplinarity rather than being “really” about writing.

As a result of these forces, bolstered by recommendations about the nature of the freshman year, abetted by critiques of required composition from within composition studies itself, freshman seminars emerge as a way of enacting several new pedagogies: critical thinking, active learning, faculty/student process interactions, peer work, inquiry, scaffolded and sequenced assignments, all in the venue of a small course.  The list is familiar to writing teachers.  One way to look at this development is as the ultimate triumph of composition studies. The end of composition thus parallels Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history, with the triumph not of democratic liberalism but of pedagogies midwifed in rhetoric and composition.  In this view, the fact that composition courses might disappear for reasons of economics and redundancy would be of no concern because its values will have suffused the academy, become a spectral star child of higher education, giving up its mortal body like Bowman at the end of 2001: A Space Oddysey. But that is not my view.

I want to be clear about two things.  First, I am not complaining about academic freshman seminars.  I like them. I do fret about their diverting resources from writing programs, but that’s beside the larger point.  Second, I have mixed feelings about the inherent desirability of mandatory freshman composition, especially as the course is likely to be positioned and staffed for the foreseeable future.

My concern is that composition’s knowledge about and commitment to teaching has been variously ignored and colonized.  Perhaps, in the institutional psychology of general teaching improvement, no discipline can be perceived as having a lead; perhaps for the good of some manifest whole, faculty must imagine they are collectively inventing for the first time ideas about the nature of learning and the role language plays in it.  Perhaps I should just smile slightly when colleagues across campus tell me about double entry notebooks or microthemes or writing as epistemic.  Perhaps I should say thank you to the distinguished professor in my department who, teaching a freshman seminar for the first time, announces two wonderful discoveries, the portfolio and Stephen Toulmin, even as she urges her graduate students to do whatever they can to avoid teaching English 101.

But when senior spokespeople for English studies, people who by virtue of status and affiliation can command space in the Chronicle or at last spring’s summit meeting on PhD programs, declare that “Everyone complains these days that we don’t train graduate students to teach, but no one ever seems to do anything about it,” I resent it.  How dare they? When such statements represent the whole state of English studies to the academic and secular world—and they do—they push composition studies ever further from higher education’s fertile river valleys of funding and prestige.  As compositionists shuffle westward we may console ourselves in the cultures that grow behind us.  Or we may stay and participate in something new.

The Pawtuxet Tiquantum, renamed Squanto, was kidnapped from his tribe and taken to England in 1605.  He lived there until John Smith brought him back to American in 1614.  But he was kidnapped again, brought to Spain, sold into slavery, then escaped to England and joined the Newfoundland company.  He returned to North America in 1619.  By then, his tribe had been killed by disease.  He joined the settlement at Plymouth in 1621, where both his agricultural knowledge and fluency in English made him useful, especially to William Bradford during negotiations with the Wampanoags.  Tisquantum died in 1622.    My sixth grade social studies textbook didn’t tell the story quite that way.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2024 Douglas Hesse

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑