[ToC]

 

JOSE AND THE SPACE BETWEEN: 11 ADMISSIONS

Ben Dolan

 

 

This is the first and most innocent Admission: I like to watch one of my freshman comp students proofread.
     Let's call him Jose. It’s true, I enjoy watching him sip his coffee and read his own writing assignments, which he peruses like one would a newspaper, thoughtfully and sometimes with a sort of genuine surprise with what he finds there. I've seen him look up from his work and gape around at his peers, his mouth slightly open, incredulous, as if trying to gauge whether or not they're reading the same bunk he is. Sometimes he laughs quietly. Other times he throws his body back in his chair and looks up at some upper corner of the room, as if someone's trying to tell him something he doesn't want to hear. He reads his own papers with much the same expressions that corporate desk-jockeys must have when reading their performance reviews. In fact, this metaphor is more appropriate for Jose than it at first seems, as he made quite apparent at the beginning of the semester. During the first class meeting I asked what their plans were for a career or "after college life" and Jose said almost insolently, "I'd like some white collar job somewhere, with a good paycheck."
     The irony of Jose's statement has, at this point in the semester, become clear to me, because, along with being an enthralling proofreader, Jose's one of my more metropolitan students. From the little he's shared with me in office hours, I've learned that his mother is Colombian and his father American; he grew up splitting his time between the two countries. He's the only one who drinks the campus' free coffee, which he warms in the microwave before our afternoon course. He landscapes his head with that do so popular among South American soccer players: trimmed sides, wild top and nape. He moves his mouth very carefully, roundly, when speaking. His writing is not grammatically perfect, but it is perceptive and engaging, tinted with the critical fury I remember philosophy majors having. In fact, he is reading a draft of his right now in which he explores the demise of the platonic male relationship, a topic he chose without any direction from me. He is interested, which is half a teacher’s battle. In other words, Jose cares about what he writes, at least partly because he believes that what he writes has some sort of power. This is probably why I like Jose, and also probably what makes Jose an entertaining person to spy on.
     I'm watching Jose proofread just now. I’m sitting behind the computer podium up front, facing the class, but I’m really watching Jose out of the corner of my eye. He's pleased with this paper. Instead of scoffing or looking up in surprise, he slowly brings the little white coffee cup to his lips, half-smiling at some little gem he's placed there. His hair is greased and curled and piled; his skin is blanched by winter’s interiority; course black stubble sparsely populates his jaw; a thin cotton shirt with buttons hangs beneath his wide neck. College student, at ease.
     But then I see his face change. He has encountered something troubling.
     He looks up. I look away, hoping he didn't catch me watching. We're just a few minutes into class. Bare arms are still fidgeting and shuffling things; foreheads expand and contract, still wondering if this is real life.
     I watch Jose out of the corner of my eye. He looks over at me, then back to his paper.
     "Crap," he says, loud enough to indicate that he wants me involved.
     I don't at first acknowledge his outburst, feigning a sort of teacherly rapture at the front of the class. I avoid it because I fear what's coming. I feel his eyes on me, though, so I look over. He's staring right at me. "What is it?" I say.
     He begins to speak, then pauses, then smiles sheepishly. "All the indentations are messed up...you know, the extra space...it got messed up."
     I move toward him as he flips his papers around. "The hanging indent?" I ask.
     I ask this because today they're turning in annotated bibliographies, which are basically formatting obstacle courses. I continue to assign them not out of some insane belief that pain is weakness leaving the body, but because I think annotated bibliographies [1] are important conceptually. Whether or not annotated bibliographies are actually useful is a debate I won’t get into here. It is, however, impossible for me to deny that, especially for a college freshman, these documents are infuriatingly particular in their formatting, partly because of the weird indentations required by the Modern Language Association (MLA). For bibliographic information, the MLA demands what are called hanging indents: the first line remains left-justified and all subsequent lines are indented. (It's ok if the memory of this makes you shudder a bit.) Getting Microsoft Word to indent correctly is, uh, unintuitive, and the ultimate product, for most people, is displeasing enough to their first-line-indent-loving eye that hanging indents become an enemy. In an annotated bib, the citations themselves, when you squint, look like flattened Oklahomas or blocky Tennessees. And below each Oklahoma of text is the annotation. These are formatted "normally," with indented paragraphs that look like Utah if Utah did an about-face, or Nebraska lying on its back. Robert Bringhurst, in his biblical The Elements of Typographical Style, is a bit less metaphorical: "...the plainest, most unmistakable yet unobtrusive way of marking paragraphs is the simple indent: a white square."
     So, naturally, on the day an annotated bibliography is due, I expect questions and some quiet ire.
     Indeed, I spoke the hated phrase aloud just now to Jose, already anticipating his problem, and here comes the panic. Other students look up from their work. Gazes rest on my face for the moment it takes "hanging indent" to stop ringing in the air, then all eyes dart back to their respective pages. There is an instant of palpable academic terror. A couple people sigh in relief.
     "No. I got that," Jose says. "It's the other indents." He flips the pages of his assignment limply. "Er—no, the spacing. The extra spacing between paragraphs. It's ok for the first couple annotations, then it gets messed up."
     I look blankly at him. He's holding up his assignment for me to see. I step a bit closer. He's not joking.
     He's certainly heard my long diatribes on how the paragraph spacing, per MLA format (I always say per. Why do I always say per? This seems telling), should be equal to that of the space between lines. He's certainly seen my scribbles on nearly every one of his drafts: Remove xtra space b/w ¶s! He's screwing with me, I'm sure, because last class I dedicated more than a few minutes to discussing this annoying error in particular.
     I examine Jose's face. He's not smiling.
     It's only March, and it's only Wednesday, and it's only the beginning of my afternoon Comp class, and this is only a bit of white space where there ought not be white space, but even now I'm screeching toward that pedagogical abyss again.

 

Admission #2, really more of a pre-Admission: This essay is about paragraph spacing. Like, the vertical space between two paragraphs. Like the space between the bottom of the letter ‘a’ in also and the top of the capital ‘P’ in Please, below. (Okay, this essay’s also about indents.)
     Please don’t quit reading.
     I recognize that paragraph spacing, like the gap of one's two eyebrows or the empty run of cloth between shirt buttons, isn't really a space worth examining for most people. I recognize, too, that I’m not most people: I’m an English Composition Teacher (I won’t make this a numbered Admission because it really was admitted when I made Admission 2).
     This essay is really all about the fact that I’m supposedly not Most People, but I’m tasked with teaching supposed representatives of Most People about something that Most People find about as important as the difference between good and pretty good wine, but is something which I feel to be more like the difference between pretty good wine and purple Koolaid. The difference, my friends, is in effect.

 

Before we proceed, some further bedrock admissions.
     Admission #3a: Jose and his peers are intelligent and original. They are interested in world topics, even in literature, though admittedly within the right frame of reference. They are thoughtful about world issues and generally accepting of alternative points of view. They are skilled in manipulating technology: they quickly adapt to new software and see clearly that the problem with all of the "learning software" and "technology enhanced classrooms" stuff, which Pearson sells like meth-filled hot dogs to jonesing universities, is not that the users haven't yet become accustomed to a new type of learning, it's that the programs suck. We commiserate on this occasionally. My students are not fools.
     And more to the point, to say that my students don't know how to manipulate writing for their own ends is insane. The difference between this text conversation

Grace: hey steve wanna go out tonight
Steve: no :P

and this conversation

Grace: hey steve wanna go out tonight
Steve: No.              

and this conversation

Grace: Hi, Steve. Would you like to go out with me tonight? Sincerely, Grace
Steve: ...

is quite clear to my students, and perhaps quite unclear to their parents' generation. (Can you imagine how long it would take someone unfamiliar with text speak to figure out the :P combination?) My students know that Steve's No period is something more cruel and meaningful than No tongue-face. My students agree that Grace's "Hi, Steve..." seems, just, wrong, scary, off, and that there's a reason Steve answers with ellipses. In fact, proof of their understanding is their reaction even as I write this exchange on the board. They see me write No period and students oooh ominously.
     I think this shows that my students understand context, tone, phrasing, and even punctuation quite well. The written language has become more musical to them, more about how sound communicates identity and emotion. They dislike many essayists because of their pretentious tone. They're masters of interpreting the undercurrent of judgment or boredom or anger in a sentence's length and diction. They hear these people in ways that even I miss.
     All of these thoughts lead me to the second and more dangerous half of Admission #3.

 

Admission #3b: Perhaps the problem isn't that these people are too thick or immature to understand such nuance as paragraph spacing.
     I ask myself, Why can’t they see that extra space after a paragraph has being and power, like a moment of silence before an answer to someone who’s asked "Do you love me too?", like an empty pause when a public speaker refers to her childhood, like a black screen in a movie?
     And if, allowing #3a above, I can’t just answer with They just don’t get it, things start to unravel.
     This is the precipice. #3b may mean I’m wrong. And I’m supposedly here to be teaching, at least some of the time, what’s best in writing. And what I’m being asked to teach, suggests admission #3b, is possibly a problem for them not in theory, but in use. In other words, I’m burdening my students with superfluous skills.
     Here it is, the crumbling edge. It may look like the floor of just another college classroom, but there is a yawning chasm at my toes and at Jose’s, only he’s staring at his paper and can’t see the drop.

 

Admission #4: Even if paragraph space manipulation is a useful skill, its importance occupies at most an eight year time span. Sixth graders aren’t particularly interested in it and no 6th grade teacher in her right mind would, I hope, grade according to MLA standards. On the other end, college-graduated adults trust paragraph spacing to templates and program defaults. In between is high school and college, where skinny ogres like me stand by the wayside and demand compliance before passage.
     Perhaps because it’s only fleetingly important, no extensive theory of paragraph spacing seems to exist. And I've attempted to find it. I want to find it because I’m convinced, I mean absolutely sure, that if our reasons for teaching certain rules about paragraph spacing or whatever (All together gang: 1" margins! Times New Roman! Double-spaced!) simply rise up, muck-covered, out of some stale-smelling Procrustean bed, then we are doing nothing for our students. 
     But, while I can’t really swallow the rules just for the sake of having rules, I’m also convinced that the rule is not just some anachronism, but that indeed the space below this line has

an ontology of its own.
     So far, the reason I've been able to fend off total surrender is that I'm needled by a sense that what Jose is talking about, or rather, what Jose’s actually done, is Something Big disguised as an empty space between things.
     But today, Jose's out-loud observation makes me wonder precisely what the point of all this is, makes me wonder if I’ve been fighting on the wrong side.
     If you're a teacher, I'm guessing you've gotten here, too.
     If you're not a teacher, this is probably why.
                

Thus, Admission #5. Today might be Armistice Day. I consider not fighting, but slowly gathering my things, saluting the class, walking out of the room, and applying for a sales job at John Deere.
     Perhaps, by now, you are disbelieving. It’s so petty, you rightly protest. So, in order to understand why I (and perhaps others like me) have what my mother calls "conniptions" in response to minor academic infractions and how these conniptions slowly wear away at our mental stability and make us want to get a job selling tractors or ‘switch over to the educational administration track’, let’s leave Jose and me frozen in that untenable moment and go back in time.
     When, five years ago, I first walked into a classroom and felt the twenty eighteen-year-old heads marionetically turn and blankly watch me stride forward to take my place behind the podium, I was sure then that a teacher's job was to make these people care. Specifically, my job was to make these people care about clear sentences and sensible paragraphs and thoughtfully structured papers. I felt powerful then. Alive with purpose. Now, after years of marking-up the lacunae between paragraphs, I'm starting to wonder if it's been about as effective as pissing on a structure fire, and about as noble, and about as pleasant. I think many other teachers have reached this place, as well. And so many of us have looked at the decades of work ahead of us and feared becoming that teacher that says things like, "Students just don't care to learn anymore." Sometimes I see myself barreling toward this jadedness.
     But I've seen these people. They are bent over. Abrasive. They are riding the wave to retirement. They see tenure as a chain; attached to the other end are the nincompoops in suits that fidget with complicated spreadsheets.
     I'm young so I tell myself I'll never be them. I'll stay invigorated and excited. But then I see the paragraphs cracking apart, and I notice my snowballing impatience, and I feel my hand grow tighter around my pen.

 

Admission #6: (Maybe you’ve noticed that) I am not particularly eager to show you Jose’s precise mistake, because I’m worried you’ll begin to fear for my sanity. But I can’t in good faith continue to hide it because I may be suggesting with the urgency of the above prose that my students have paragraphs placed on the page like scattershot. Even I can admit it’s not so bad as that.
     Here's the exact crime Jose's incriminating himself in:
     Notice that the same space exists above this line...
     ...as above this line, though this line is in a new paragraph.

     Above this line, however, there's more than a line's worth of space.
     Now, between entries in a Works Cited page, for example, extra space makes (mostly aesthetic) sense. But between normally indented paragraphs about a single topic, it doesn’t. Ellen Lupton (more on her later) calls this a Type Crime. MLA is more blasé. They don’t call it anything. It's just not within formatting guidelines.
     But, an oddity: In its most recent iterations of Word, Microsoft has changed the default formatting to add extra space after paragraphs. Now, when you begin typing away and find that, ultimately, you're ready for a new paragraph, your right pinky finger wields a greater power than it previously had: one jab of a key begins a new line (technically a carriage return) and then some. This makes a "blocked" paragraph format. Meaning: there is more space (6-10 points more) between the paragraphs than there are between the lines. Meaning: your left index finger (or whichever finger you use to peck at the northwestern TAB button) has been unceremoniously stripped of a duty it took quite seriously, which was operating the button that normally signifies new paragraphs.
     Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with block paragraphs. It's simply an aspect of a different genre of writing. "Block paragraphs are common in business letters and memos," Bringhurst says, "and because they suggest precision, crispness, and speed, they can be useful in short documents of other kinds." All fine and good, Mr. Bringhurst, but a more immediate problem lies in the fact that all my students' fingers are not yet reconciled to one another. In some of their documents there are indented block paragraphs. The result is jarring—paragraphs like weird little islands with their top left corners snipped off, backwards Utahs floating in white.
     Isolation distorts a teacher’s sense of scale. I thought, for a while, that I was the only one who was grumpy about all this. But then I discovered others. Ellen Lupton, in Thinking with Type, describes it thus:"Type Crime: TOO MANY SYMBOLS Using paragraph spacing and indents together squanders space and gives the paragraph a flabby, indefinite shape." Or Matthew Butterick, a typographer who has published another beautiful (of course, they must be) "book" about typography online, says it this way: "First line indents and space between paragraphs have the same relationship as belts and suspenders. You only need one to get the job done. Using both is a mistake."
     These other scrooges invigorate me. I think, If paragraph spacing really doesn't matter, why now is Microsoft asking its users to convert to belts when, for years, it recommended suspenders? If it doesn't matter, or if it's not broken, why would they change it? If it doesn’t matter, why could I imagine Ellen Lupton and Butterick and I bitching about it for hours over wine and tapas?
     On the other hand, if it matters as much as I fear, why isn't anyone complaining about this? Why isn't anyone bothered by this small change in a computer program? Am I just another grammar-toad whose (soon-to-be) double chin jiggles with alarm the second the temperature of the English Style environment changes a fraction of a degree? Am I just another person who loves the idea of a "type-crime," even when there is nothing truly criminal about it?
     I'm standing at the front of the room, and Jose's sitting in the front row near the door. All his peers are sitting in a similar position of moral suspension behind him, and he's holding up the assignment for me to see. Even from here, a few feet away, I can see that his paragraphs are not correctly spaced. I see it like leprosy on Jose's paper.
     "In longer sequences," Bringhurst says about block paragraphs, "they may seem soulless and uninviting." Soulless. Should I tell Jose this? Will he or another complain to administration?
     Jose says, "Will I get counted off? Should I go change it?"
    

Admission #7: After a few years of seeing it, it’s clear that I've got a sort of hair-trigger reaction to paragraph spacing. This is probably quite apparent to you, too, by now.

 

Admission #8: To combat the menace, I ultimately landed on what I’ll call a soft academic tyranny: do it because that's what's required. I tell them to remove all extra space between paragraphs because that’s just what’s right. I show them an example of a badly spaced document. They nod.
     In fact, a few students received my commands with such acquiescence that they have at

times, while keeping the paragraphs themselves double-spaced (as these lines are)

removed all space between paragraphs,
     Like this.

     O Soft Tyrant, what hath thou wrought.

     I know this is an anomaly and that perhaps my zealotry has become even more suspect. But isn't this—not the goofy mistake, but the spirit of the mistake, born of just-do-what-the-man-says fear—what I'm really supposed to be tackling? I want to argue to them that lurking in between paragraphs is something pulsing and alive, that something vital thumps in these empty spaces. I want to convince them that Bringhurst and Lupton and Butterick are not crazies, and I want to convince them of this because I want them to believe that I’m not a crazy, and I want them to believe this because then they can admire me and I want admiration because without it I am beset by fears that my conviction about paragraphs and writing in general is flimsy religiosity, durable only if obsessively reinforced.
     What's so scary is how clearly Jose's essay makes me see that I'm a slave to rules which demand acquiescence because I can't satisfactorily answer questions like What does it matter if our paragraphs look "flabby" and "indefinite"? Why can't we have paragraphs like that? without landing on the answer sure to make everyone peepee-hearted: That's just how it is.
Here's what students hear: Don't ask why. Acquiesce.
     (Subadmission: This next part will sound like a conspiracy theory.)
     And, what’s more, when the minds at Microsoft make a small change in a program that, according to them, about 15% of living humans use, aren’t they asking for basic acquiescence? Isn’t this the case with Apple, and Google, and Amazon? I don’t mean that they’re trying to subjugate our humanity. I mean isn’t our acquiescence very, very profitable?

 

Admission #9: Ok, I'm an alarmist. Butterick and Lupton [2] are probably alarmists, too. Alarmists tend to universalize their field's rules to the whole human race; Alarmists call transgressors criminals; Alarmists can become Conspiracy Theorists simply by intensifying their tone and sleeping less. Without a doubt, I see transgression or slow disintegration where my students see change, freedom.
     But I must say that the typical response to Alarmists—chill out, man, it's just no big deal—fails to fully acknowledge the nearly unbearable weight of our reality: no single Mover moves us; instead, innumerable tiny details exert their diminutive forces in concert and, like ten thousand hair dryers filling a sail, succeed in pushing our lives along. No single company (not even Pearson) controls us, but they are one of many that blow us along our course.
     All that to say: small details matter and (less obviously)the details that we feel are very important (for example, being sure not to wear the same shirt to work two days in a row, or getting the exact coarseness for your French press in the morning) are not necessarily the ones exerting the most force on our ultimate trajectory. I think we could all admit that there are details that go unnoticed that deeply effect our lives. And they go unnoticed because either they’re too complicated or they’re seemingly unimportant.
     And what else am I supposed to be doing as a teacher but not dismissing these details? What trajectory, exactly, do I serve other than the Life Trajectory? Should I instead demand that Corporate America take more responsibility for educating their minions? I don’t think so. That would be like demanding that Donut Mart start holding weight loss seminars, or that casinos advertise gambling addiction helplines. Even if Microsoft was cajoled into programming into MSWord a required ten minute tutorial in which Robert Bringhurst et al in various urban-streetish backgrounds spoke with slangy passion about the importance of paragraph spacing—you know, like pounding the streets with typography—wouldn’t everyone just ex-out of that tutorial with wild speed? And if they couldn’t, wouldn’t there be an uproar? And wouldn’t Microsoft have to make some robotic apology?
     Perhaps this is a bit of an insult, but isn’t college partially about spending four years considering the complexities and apparent minutia of a field, the theories behind the infinite practices, the small things that are so big, the things that people would normally ex-out of with wild speed? Why, after all, do they make us do derivatives and why do they test us on valence electrons? Why do we read Romeo and Juliet? Isn’t the entire pedagogy of the American education system based on the belief that small moments and tiny particles and thin books that we’d normally skip are precisely the things that changethe world?

 

Admission #10: Textbooks are no help. (Ok, that’s more of an Accusation). This, from the one Jose must read occasionally as homework:

Outside of college, you probably won't be asked to write something called a "research paper." In the workplace, white papers and analytical reports are similar to research papers because they rely on sources to explain an issue or support an argument.

Imagine if a Math book admitted something like this. You’ll never do a derivative again, but you may do something that uses complex graphs and algebra. Textbooks think the problem is that school is too boring, so they try to be the reasonable, cool uncle. I believe they have succeeded in that program.
     How can any teacher, faced with this almost laughable avuncular practicality, say anything about the SPACE AFTER PARAGRAPH? Am I way off in thinking that the above textbook excerpt is basically asking people to stop thinking about and start practicing "life" which is then being defined often as just one long shift at work? If we're ultimately training people to go into the workplace, and the workplace is what's ultimately determining what we teach in college and how we teach it, then is our responsibility more akin to job-trainers than teachers? And, if that's at all so, is that a bad thing?
     But, on the other hand, if public education is seeing a retreat of theory/inquiry/curiosity about intellectual trifles to graduate programs, aren't we basically shrugging and saying that it's fine that undergrad classes don't introduce more people to the deep critical mindset arguably quite valuable in a country of a million choices and a million ideas, some legitimate, some foolish, and a few genuinely criminal, begging for attention and money? Aren't we just saying that college should be more accessible and, to make it so, less analytical? Aren't we just preparing more people for jobs, jobs at bigger and bigger companies, companies that have more and more say in the way our lives unfold? Aren’t we just saying, Don’t worry, Microsoft will take care of that while also saying Odds are you won’t be one of the people "taking care of things" at Microsoft? Is it any different than a more dated effort to try to get more kids off the farm and into their one-room schoolhouses by disposing of Hawthorne and passing out Horticulture textbooks that in Figures 114a and 116c depict their very own farms, right down to the corn they helped plant last year?
     Let's be real here: Hundreds of thousands of students each year are sitting in university classrooms and paying out the butt for what colleges are more and more unabashedly calling "workplace" training. What students often get, however, is a frustrated adjunct or perhaps full-on professor who wants to have conversations about Space After Paragraph but cannot execute these conversations thoughtfully because 1) he is (we’ll call this an Unnumbered Tangential Admission) not very well trained as a teacher, and 2) he indeed was a gleaming product of the workplace-specialization system which he rails against, but cannot admit aloud that his workplace turned out to be "English classroom," and his work turned out to be "make them care," neither of which will end up being the workplace or work for any more than one or two of his students per semester. This is the ultimate irony of many public university classes, especially those workaday classes taught to freshmen and sophomores. They're in my workplace learning how to be in their workplace by learning the skills necessary for my workplace while I don’t know or think very highly of their future workplace, all while I'm swearing to them that they'll need my workplace’s content in their workplace, even though I suspect they won't. My allegiance is divided: on one side I've sworn my life to the written word because I have this deep love for the sentence, for writing, for literature; on the other side, I'm being paid to prepare people, and not for grad classes in Literature, but instead for a world of political and technologically supported hierarchy in which acquiescence is a trait modestly rewarded, a world in need of hundreds of thousands of worker bees to function properly, a world which does not require—and perhaps would even laugh at—any critical thoughts concerning, for example, the comparative readability of sans serif fonts.
     In the context of the theoretical workplace for which we're all practicing and prepping, I can admit that having this argument about SPACE AFTER PARAGRAPH is just not worth the effort.  Maybe this is the core of Admission #10. I can't honestly say it would ever really matter in the workplace. And, in that case, hell, no element of typography is really worth the effort, because each little thing—periods and commas and spaces—is, alone, only marginally and sometimes not at all necessary to communicate meaning.
     But the problem remains: What to say to Jose, whose paragraphs are sometimes and sometimes not made by extra space and indents. Jose wants to know what the result will be of his mistake. He wants me to know that he sees that he's made a mistake. He, along with all of his peers, see the problem, but because they only put all of this on actual physical paper perhaps nine minutes ago then sprinted upstairs with the still-warm papers gripped tightly in hand, they are stuck. Jose is caught in a system that demands acquiescence by suggesting that failure here means failure out there, which is about as pedagogically valuable as a gun to the head.
     I have the gun right here, so how should I respond to Jose's bafflement?
    
What I Consider Saying, A: I’ve been told they're headed to The Workplace. So, imagining him in a hard hat or a blue button-up, I could say, "Don't worry about it, Jose. It's not a big deal."
    
What I Consider Saying, B: Thinking of my duty as an employee in a particular workplace, I could ply the ol' they need to learn how to follow directions line to which those nihilists, those who believe that rule-following (I think they call it "navigating the system," these days) is about the only concrete pedagogy one can successfully execute [3], so often revert: "Please correct and resubmit your paper, Jose. It’ll be late."

What I Consider Saying, C: I feel that Jaded Teacher (the speech-maker, the intellectual-in-exile) gathering strength in me. Perhaps this could be the moment where he stands up for his cause. I could speak in his voice, use his crooked dagger: "Let's all admit, bravery and willingness aside, you can't fight any beast with a dull, rusted sword. No one ever has. Cultural heroes like MLK and Hemingway and Obama and even your inspirational go-tos like Maya Angelou or your favorite kid's-stuff like Shel Silverstein—they all can write whole, clear, sometimes remarkably graceful sentences. They all used paragraphs. We can't say it's necessary, but we can say it's the case that the most powerful forces for change were often also capable, even eloquent writers. Good writers fight things like stagnancy and political foolery and racism and meanness, and they do it with exact and graceful prose. I'm sure you'll agree. And I'm guessing you'll agree that you don't need to be a very good writer.  You won't need to fight racism and bigotry and hatred and misery and greed and apathy in the Workplace. Leave that to the Revolutionaries, those rare birds-of-prey whose Workplace is city squares, pulpits and stages, those people chosen before birth, in the same way that you were chosen before birth to be a Managerial Assistant or a Chief Operating Officer or a Graphic Designer. In your Workplace, you'll just need to send an inordinate amount of clear-if-not-perfectly-grammatical emails, fill out some performance reviews paragraphed in whatever style Word chooses for you, and slip out a bit early to beat the evening rush back into the Real World: a giant theme park of traffic and shops, bills and sprinklers, decent restaurants and three bedroomers decorated here and there with shelves of books, books filled with ideas you considered in college and even enjoyed but haven't needed since, because, of course, they don't contain ideas about your life, the life you have, the life you've been trained for. They contain ideas about capital-L Life, which anymore will only eek its way into your consciousness at the end of movies like Unbreakable and when you see homeless people. In fact, none of this actually has to do with (lower-case) you because in three years or so you'll be jockeying for a job that offers a semi-platinum paycheck for doing work a friendly, conscientious ninth grader could be trained to do well if it weren't for the peskiness of puberty, and the college degree you'll present them is more like a stamp of approval from society that says you've ripened long enough past puberty to be no menace to the workplace. Honestly, the only reason I'm making your ass crawl in your chair at the mention of hanging indents and paragraph spacing is that I just got this graduate degree in Creative Writing and, because I'm not an up-and-coming writer, I needed a job, just like you'll need a job some day, and that job has rules, just like your job will, and it’s my job to enforce the rules and avoid, as much as possible, questions like Does it really matter? because, really, everyone in this room knows it doesn't really matter, big time emphasis on really, just like how your major doesn't really matter, and your tattoo design doesn't really matter, and your eventual success or failure out there in the Real World doesn't really matter."
     I consider saying this. Maybe ending with a sarcastic smile.
    

Admission #11: I almost say all of these things, but I hesitate and say none of them. Yet I must say something. And whatever I say to Jose, I also say to his peers, who are stuck in a set of rules that admit their own obsolescence even while refusing to explain their presence. Whatever I say to Jose I also say to myself, a teacher who worries that his deep belief about paragraph spacing is both radically right and abysmally wrong, a belief that feels more like holding a gun than knowing some minutia.
     Jose and his peers stare at me. I am frozen in this empty space between.

 

 

 

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[1] If you're unsure as to what an annotated bibliography is, try to remember the most tedious assignment in your freshman comp course. Chances are it was or was a toothy cousin to the annotated bibliography. It's basically just a list of sources in which beneath each citation you insert your own writing that analyzes and evaluates the usefulness of that source. Annotated bibliographies are intended as invigorating warm up stretches for the marathon of the "research paper" but they're more often viewed like the mythological climbing rope in PE class, whose more obvious purpose seems to be humiliation and cuz-I-did-it-when-I-was-your-age pedagogy.
     An ann. bib. also is intended to prove to the professor that the students have read the sources before they begin including them in a longer paper. This works to varying degrees, though it must be said here and now that I was an English major and I never read all the sources. I learned to "power read" back then, and then obfuscate my ignorance with dense and associative prose, and then count on the unflattering transparency of my peers’ prose to make my half-assery seem somehow more studious than theirs.
     Another and more nebulous purpose of the annotated bib is having students "evaluate" each source's usefulness for their project. Here’s a question I ask them to write about: Will this source be a useful voice in your research paper? It should come as no surprise that almost every source is useful to a freshman college student. This is because "usefulness," for a freshman, has to do with the assignment—every source is useful, mister professor, in fulfilling the seven source requirement.  For a long time I was annoyed by this, but then realized that I present books as always useful. Read any ol’ book, I hint, and you’ll learn something! Educators everywhere chant "Read anything!" This is insane, of course, if you think about it for five seconds, but students generally believe that reading and research are the same thing, and I think this is because they’ve swallowed whole the American belief that by acquiescing to books, one can truly learn. It’s our other American Dream: to get something without doing anything. To get fairly rewarded for minimum effort. To find the angle.

[2] In a generous response to a long email from me that probably too aggressively demanded answers to the questions I’ve posed here, Ellen Lupton signed off with "MSWord is the devil!!!" This was the best part of the email by far, both because I agree and because a renowned typographer used three consecutive exclamation points in my presence.

[3] These are the teachers who give a pop quiz every once in a while that says at the top "You have ten minutes to complete this quiz. Read ALL the directions before you begin" and on the bottom of the second page, after a number of probing and challenging questions, sneak in "If you’ve read this far, good work following directions. Write your name here and turn your quiz in for a 100." College teachers more often do it in a paragraph deep into the interior of their jungle-like syllabi: "If you’re reading this, please send me an email with your name and favorite ice-cream flavor." I’ve done this sort of thing before as a teacher, and I am ashamed. I forgot that when these things were done to me, I felt angry and miserable. I never read all the directions and so always plunged into the challenging questions with wild release. I never read syllabi because they were long-winded and self-congratulatory. And for these failures, I would be punished. I suppose this essay is proof that the punishment was not severe enough.

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[Butterick's] and [Lupton's] websites.