Advanced Composition Aesthetics and the Writer's Colony
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    Sharing Touchstones
Advanced Composition students need literary role models. Novelist Alice Walker explains, "... models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect ­- even if rejected ­- enrich and enlarge one's view of existence" (4). We must read great works, associate with noble minds, and nurture our souls. Through literature, we associate with people who think beyond the everyday and explore an exalted conception of human possibility. Professor Larry Inchausti believes that the classical scholar Longinus would teach composition by simply distributing the great essays of the past 2,000 years and then sending students home to read. I suggest distributing extensive nonfiction reading lists to the class and allowing students to select three texts most relevant to their own interests. In addition, each week, students would bring in four brief examples ­- of metaphor, voice, exquisite language, and innovative punctuation ­- from any source, including their own work, to read aloud. 
Composition theorist Michael Carter recommends anthropologist Loren Eiseley's  Immense Journey, Agee and Evan's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Winston Weather's An Alternative Style, and a required student subscription to the New Yorker (105). Lynn Z. Bloom suggests reading Jonathan Kozol's books on homelessness, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, optimist Annie Dillard, neurologist Oliver Sacks, naturalist Rachel Carson, scientist Lewis Thomas, Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiographical writings, and M.F.K. Fisher's tribute to food (256). Bloom also recommends two anthologies: Paul John Eakin's Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention and William L. Andrew's To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (263). 
I would include Tom Waldrep's two-volume Writers on Writing features college professors describing their own writing process (including Bloom herself); Larry Inchausti's Spitwad Sutras; John Berendt literary journalism of eccentric mystery, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; Jostein Gaadier's didactic fiction, Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy; and Kendall Hailey's praise of self-culture, The Day I Became an Autodidact and the Advice, Adventures, and Acrimonies that Befell Me Thereafter.
     The Experimental Classroom or The Writer's Colony
I'm inspired by the course "Personal Voice" created at the University of Vermont in 1987 and documented in diary entries by professor Toby Fulwiler. He attempted to create "more of a living-room community of writers than an academic classroom" (111). Similarly, I believe Advanced Composition must move outside the dingy four walls on campus. To quote from my own exclamatory e-mail: "No blackboard! No podium! No teacher's desk!" In fact, I would ask students to reserve the fourth Sunday of each week for an afternoon potluck and off-campus writing workshop, in lieu of regular class meetings during the previous week. 
Instead of a final exam, the students would attend a weekend retreat during the last month of the quarter ­ structured like a writer's colony with time for both solitary writing and communal readings. As defined by The Writer's Handbook, colonies offer "isolation and freedom from everyday distractions to writers who want a quiet place to concentrate on their work" (758). I'd arrange to borrow a friend's beach house in Santa Barbara or rent a cabin at Lake Nacimiento Resort. We'd hike to quiet spots for writing, read aloud around a campfire, share meals, and engage in middle-of-the-night freewriting exercises. 
Furthermore, I propose the anti-grade. Shearle Furnish of West Texas A&M University lists the many reasons students write: "to please or placate teachers, pass school, earn credit, establish credentials: that is, to by-pass the process of education rather than to experience it" (497). The honor students most likely to take advanced composition seem particularly susceptible to gradebook motivations. Yet, as Peter Elbow admits, when we "jump over the edge" by boldly experimenting with our writing, we risk essays that are "terrible" (302). 
The simplest way to free students from grade anxiety is to guarantee either an A or an incomplete, with students signing a motivational contract. Michael Carter reminds us, "Going beyond competence is to go beyond reliance on rules" (63). Breaking the rules applies to instructors as well, as an act of faith and comradery.
More extreme than the grade-less class, I propose the teacher-less class. Perhaps a graduate student could serve as coordinator, distributing handouts, collecting papers, arranging the retreat, scheduling guest facilitators, and also completing assignments. Each class meeting would be hosted by a different writer: interested faculty, local poets, journalists, newspaper editors, and winners of the Poly creative writing contest. Rather than one teacher assigning grades, the graduate coordinator would recruit faculty and local writers to comment extensively on a few different papers each week. Similar to the Delphi process, some papers would be photocopied so students could write each other short letters about observed themes and style. 
Students would keep journals as "a place in which to examine one's personal voice as well as comfortably practice it" (Fulwiler, 105). The final paper would be autobiographical, an amalgamation of the "Delphi Response to the Delphi Response" used in our seminar, the "voice history" assigned by Fulwiler, and the "reflective essay" described by Kenneth Robert Wright of the University of Oregon (e-mail). Wright asks students to explore the recursive nature of essays through the following prompts: How did you select topics? How did pre-writing work? Where did your ideas come from? What audience did you envision? Will you use these approaches again? How do you assess the totality of your writing process?  Daniel A. Zellman suggests that students also submit a "process log" with each finished essay, identifying the strongest passage, most troublesome passage, and major revisions (e-mail). 
The three other short papers could experiment with genre-crossing, incorporating techniques from ethnography, epistolaries, dialogue, intellectual essays, journalism, and literary nonfiction. As Donovan and Carr point out, students should be encouraged to choose topics which reflect "authentic curiosity" and subjects "in which they have a personal stake." (216). I would emphasize publication prospects, whether in literary journals, campus publications, or a class chapbook. When William Saroyan's first stories were published, he wrote his editor: "In my writing I wish to use the Word in a way that will inevitably improve living .... I wish to relate and interpret the story of man on earth as I understand his story .... Through my writing I hope to go beneath and beyond surfaces; to see; to know; to declare; to make known; to rejoice!" ((Burnett, 6). If we agree with Saroyan, then the essays resulting from a university-sponsored Advanced Aesthetics class must be shared with the campus, the community, and the world. 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner