College Writing by Jack Christian
If that’s how I feel about teaching College Writing, then why do I teach it at all, Anna wanted to know? We were talking briefly in the office we share with five other grad students.
She got out a green Motts for Tots juice box and started sipping. She drinks Motts for Tots because it has less sugar, and because she has an affinity for small consumer products. She buys the smallest container of milk at the grocery store. She prefers travel-size toothpastes and soaps. I wonder sometimes if these habits represent a latent anxiety over cohabitation. When I go shopping, I get the Family Size Economy Pack. I attempt to buy enough trashbags to last the next decade.
I took out the sandwich she made me that morning when our deal had been you do the sandwiches, I’ll do the coffee and dishes. I said I teach the class because it earns me a $14000 stipend. I said, without this class, it would not even be possible to enjoy this sandwich. Anna told me about the paper she was reading called “Key Words for Composition.” She said, “My key word for you is Sincerity.” I said mine was, what was the word? I looked down at my sandwich. She chewed her straw. She said wasn’t it time for me to go teach again?
I leaned across her to see the clock on her computer. She put her hand on my back. I said “may-be” drawing out the word as long as possible.
I had 12 minutes to get there, on the north end of campus. In our office, we hug or kiss goodbye with exaggerated quickness. We don’t want the other grad students to see our public displays of affection. That’s the kind of thing people would gossip about. Anna calls English Department gossip The Newsletter. She doesn’t want us to make The Newsletter.
A few turns, and a flight of steps, and I made it out of Bartlett Hall. Bartlett is L-shaped, made of brick and painted paneling, like a 1970s junior high. I went through its small courtyard, which is vaguely Asian. Then, past the Whitmore administrative building, with its slow ramp that makes it seem like a landed space station, and on its inside, the clench-jawed women of the bursar’s office, who sit behind glass waiting for students to groan at them.
I went down the long, covered, totalitarian walkway in front of the fine arts building. The whole thing constructed to resemble a giant piano. Then, past the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center, also made of concrete. The building is wider at the top than on the bottom, suggesting the capability to topple on unruly student gatherings. If the sprawl of the UMass campus has come to resemble anything, it resembles The Maze of Bureaucracy. The walkways are wide and frequently blocked by construction, the buildings are ugly, large, and poorly marked, their insides inscrutable. The campus art consists of bronzed statues of Indians and Minutemen, who stand at various precipices, look out at the surrounding architecture, and wonder What the Fuck?
Back in our office, the floors are dirty. The desks are dirty. I tell my students they can find me by entering what looks like a supply closet, proceeding down its corridor, then entering the last door on the right. That’s in case they would like to come by for office hours. That’s in case they are not shy about meeting with their grad student instructor in a dim cubby. The corridor is lined with 20 year-old computer parts. A Soviet feeling. A month ago, when I had just bought a fall coat from TJ Maxx, I placed it on top of my office desk, and, when I picked it back up, it was covered in a fine black dust.
My afternoon class doesn’t actually meet in a classroom, but in a dorm lobby, which is not an uncommon at UMass. Almost all available space has been converted for classes. Students who live nearby show up in pajamas. Rock bands practice upstairs. I arrived seven minutes late, walked to the center of where the students were sitting and announced I was taking a Teacher Tardy. With this class, lack of instructional clarity has finally translated into student engagement. In my morning class it’s like we’re different species. In this one, the early-comers arrange their desks into a neat semi-circle, which they have referred to once or twice as a Circle of Love, and I tried to encourage without seeming sentimental. I did a half-turn so that I again faced most of them and asked what should we talk about today? Apparently, the thing to talk about was Annotated Bibliographies. A few didn’t understand why they needed 10 sources in their bibliographies, but only had to reference four in their final, research papers. Another one raised her hand and told her classmates to think of themselves going back-to-school shopping. The sources in their bibliographies were like the clothes they tried on. The ones they referenced in their papers were like what they bought. At which point, I looked around the room and noted that this made complete sense.
Jack Christian is the author of the chapbook Let’s Collaborate from Magic Helicopter Press. His poems are upcoming in Web Conjunctions and have appeared recently on the web in Drunken Boat, Sixth Finch, Ink Node, I Thought I was New Here, and Cimarron Review. He is from Richmond, Virginia and now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.