Thursday, February 18, 2010

Good Writer, Bad Person

Pie has been coming home from kindergarten lately with some strange worksheets.

"What do you want more?" one sheet asked. "A new car or a new house?" Pie answered by drawing a picture of a house and writing beneath it, "I need a new house." (A bigger one, she explained later, with an extra room to allow her best friend to move in and become her sister.) Our house is already new; we hardly need a new or bigger one, and it seemed odd to me that teachers would encourage kindergarten students to press their parents for such large-ticket items.

"I want an iPod Touch," another petition urged. The school has purchased a set of iPods, presumably for educational purposes, and the students have been urged to buy raffle tickets to win one of their very own.

As far as I know, the purpose of these writing/colouring exercises is to lay the foundation for the persuasive writing curriculum. The teachers are harnessing the children's natural greed and attempting to use it for good: by writing their parents these letters, the children begin, in a rudimentary way, to express their desires in writing, to take a position and back it up with argumentation.

The trouble is, my children are not naturally acquisitive; they almost never ask me to buy them things. They zealously defend their property rights in relation to things they already own, but the idea of begging for new stuff - especially high-tech gadgets like an iPod or, um, a new car - is foreign to them. In the name of teaching persuasive writing, the teachers are actually fostering acquisitiveness and greed.

A friend of mine who is a grade five teacher has a similarly troubling story. The principal at her school made an announcement one day: the school board has cancelled summer vacation! The students were, naturally, up in arms. For a week they pooled their resources to write persuasive letters to the board, demanding a return to the ten-month school year. At the end of the week, the principal confessed: the whole thing had been a stunt, a white lie told in the name of education. Naturally, the students felt betrayed. The exercise had worked - they had learned a lot about how to marshal arguments and express them clearly - but the sense of empowerment they had achieved through the exercise proved to be illusory.

Is there something about the act of persuasive writing that is vaguely shady? E.B. White ends his novel, Charlotte's Web with the following famous remark: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." I have always assumed that White was referring to the notorious artistic temperament, to the selfishness of those who devote their lives to a creative muse. But does it go deeper than that? Can something as apparently useful and innocuous and persuasive writing be inimical to the development of one's character?

I teach persuasive writing to adults, and it strikes me that in doing so I often take open-minded students who are able to see all sides of an issue and bully or cajole them into taking a side. The art of persuasive writing is the art of twisting the facts, carefully framing sentences so that contradictory evidence appears to support your cause. Rhetoric is about manipulation and deception; it's about making your case look better than it is. My students come to me unable to pull off this feat, and if I do my job, they leave my class savvier and more corrupt.

Of course, that isn't all I do. In an expository writing course I also take students who are wholly wedded to their own point of view and teach them to anticipate opposing arguments, to consider the beliefs and values of their audience, to characterize their opponents fairly and even charitably. When they write rebuttal papers, students repeatedly make the mistake of overheating their rhetoric; I counsel them to tone down the vitriol, to assume a more reasonable tone and give their readers a chance to see for themselves how bigoted and absurd their opponents' arguments are. If I do my job, they leave my class equipped to represent themselves as open-minded and fair people. But at the end of the day, they do this for one reason only: to win the argument.

Persuasive writing is, in some ways, the opposite of learning. We write persuasively in order to get what we want, to bully people into coming around to our point of view. It may well be the case that the two qualities that most necessary to the success of any essay-writer are (1) arrogance and (2) the ability to conceal one's arrogance from others.

These reflections are all the more disturbing because I have recently made it a priority to develop Bub's writing skills. Writing is his Achilles heel, academically, so I've come up with a solution: blogging. Each school day, before he's allowed to use the computer recreationally, Bub must write a post in his "diary." His first few posts included a short story, several calendars marked with special days, and a number of how-to guides on topics like soccer and Pokemon. But yesterday he spontaneously shifted gears and attempted a persuasive essay. Sniff Your Bum Please was the title of his post, and the body of the post went like this: "please please please please do what the title says and do not change your mind."

Well, at least he's polite.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I. Am. Canadian.

During these scandal-plagued Olympic games, it seems appropriate somehow that the main thing my children are learning about Canadian patriotism is the importance of drinking beer.

"Drop your gear for beer!" my pastor chanted periodically Friday night, after the CTV coverage of the opening ceremonies began with a clip of the MuchMusic VJs lounging in a hot tub with bikini-clad twelve-year-olds while audience members competed in what appeared to be an impromptu stripping contest. The pastor and her family were visiting during the opening ceremonies and, luckily for us, the children had left the room just in time to miss the VJs doing "body shots" (though not in time to avoid seeing horrific footage of the fatal luge accident).

Refusing to learn from experience, I called my kids into the living room last night to watch Maelle Ricker compete in the snowboard cross finals. "I always cheer for Canada," Pie confided, snuggling in beside me on the couch, and as the four of us hooted and hollered at Maelle's gold-medal performance, Bub noticed something on the TV.

"Hey, we should get that Canadian drink!" he exclaimed, pointing excitedly at the screen.

"Is it Canada Dry ginger ale?" hubby asked from the kitchen.

"No," I answered. "It's the other Canadian drink."


I am a patriot, but even I balk at the idea of serving my six-year-old beer. I will, however, serve up pancakes with maple syrup, so we celebrated Shrove Tuesday last night with chocolate-chip pancakes and (uncharacteristically) a generous dollop of artificial table syrup. We are normally a real maple syrup family, purchasing our syrup from a local farm that offers hay rides and pumpkin tosses in the fall, along with sugar bush tours in the spring. But we laid in a supply of the artificial stuff this year because hubby was in charge of making French Toast for the Valentine's Day church breakfast.

It has been years since I've tasted fake maple syrup, and I was surprised at how good it was - and at how readily it took me back to the last time I'd tried it. "It tastes like camp," I told hubby on Sunday morning. With my first bite I was transported instantly to a dining hall full of kids chanting "Bea, Bea, if you're able, keep your elbows off the table! This is not a horses' stable, but a first-class dining table!"

So I shouldn't have been so surprised last night when Bub ran in excitedly, holding out his plate full of pancakes. "These pancakes are making my tummy ... are making my whole body remember what we used to do!" he spluttered. "We used to go to a Santa party!"

It was a few moments before I figured out what he meant. Two Christmases ago we went up to the local farm to have breakfast with Santa. It wasn't a great success - we were expected to huddle over our breakfasts in a tent heated inadequately by an electric space heater, so we bolted down pancakes with syrup and blueberry sauce while Santa did his best to whip up some enthusiasm with his jingle bells. It was a forgettable morning, at least until last night, when his first taste of table syrup called up the memory in Bub's tummy.

This was a first of sorts: Bub's first encounter with the phenomenon of sense memory, his first discovery of the way the present can suddenly be invaded by the past at the whiff of cloves or the taste of syrup on the tongue.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Free Time

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, women today have, on average, thirty hours of leisure time per week. In Dani's post on the subject, she admits that despite the pressure of near-constant busy-ness, she manages to find 20 hours each week for photography, working out, and other leisure pursuits. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that some quick number-crunching put my weekly leisure hours at around 40. (My embarrassment is, incidentally, confirmation of one of the Post article's major points: it's not so much that we are busy nowadays as that we are conditioned to associate busy-ness with status.)

I'm not under the impression that I am crazy busy. During March and November, when the marking season hits, I make hefty withdrawals from that 40-hour fund, but right now, I'm pretty relaxed. My house is clean. I feel confident, most days, that I will get through my allotment of classes without that panicky mid-lecture feeling that when the current sentence comes to an end I will have no idea what to say next.

By any measure, I have a pretty comfortable amount of leisure time. I go out for lunch twice a week, once with my husband and once with a friend. I keep up with a demanding television schedule that includes (at the moment) Bachelor, House, Survivor, Lost, and Grey's Anatomy with HGTV to fill the gaps. I subscribe to four different magazines, not to mention some eighty-odd blogs. Nevertheless, the task of adding up my leisure hours reveals some ambiguities. Does it count as leisure if I read a book during a quiet office hour? I'm not free to leave the room; I am, technically, being paid to sit there. Given the choice, I might prefer a good round of Guitar Hero, or even an hour at my computer to catch up on some marking. But an hour spent chuckling over an Alexander McCall Smith or Nick Hornby novel seems pretty self-indulgent. Into the leisure column it goes.

I did not, on the other hand, put my commute into the leisure column. It's a relaxing drive through an often very beautiful countryside, and it's time I often use for work-purposes, thinking my way through an upcoming lecture. But what if I spend that 45 minutes composing a blog post? (My posting record should make it clear that I don't do so, but what if I did?) One reason I enjoy housecleaning is that I can pop in the Greatest Hits of 1983 and listen to "Karma Charmeleon" while I sweep the kitchen floor. Listening to music is a leisure pursuit; scrubbing toilets clearly is not. What happens when I do both at the same time?

The distinction between work and leisure seems obvious, but the more I think about it the blurrier those categories become. Most workplaces include opportunities for pleasurable and not entirely work-related activities like gossiping with co-workers or updating Facebook. In their leisure time, people often embrace challenging and productive activities like jogging, volunteering, or learning Italian. The difficulty in distinguishing work from leisure may even be a marker of happiness: the happiest people are those who enjoy their work (getting paid to do something they would otherwise do voluntarily) and who have enough energy left over at the end of the day to take on leisure activities more stimulating and meaningful than predicting who'll leave empty-handed from this week's rose ceremony.

The distinction between work and leisure is never more problematic than when we consider time spent with children. John Robinson, the expert quoted in the Post article, includes child-care in his definition of leisure time. His point, I think, is that contrary to popular myth, parents are not in fact working too hard to spend time with their kids. Parents today actually spend more time talking and playing with their children than parents in the 1960s. This is a point worth making, but it also radically changes the impact of his pronouncement that women have abundant leisure time. I assume he does not include in his tally the time spent changing diapers or packing lunches, but even so, time spent in the company of a crying baby or an active toddler does not, in any way that I can think of, qualify as leisure.

Baby-care is not leisure; toddler-care is emphatically not leisure; but school-aged children complicate matters somewhat. When I sit down with my kids to cringe through an episode of Sailor Moon I don't feel that I am settling in for a bit of free time. But what about the half-hour I spent last Saturday sharing their enjoyment of the sword-fighting scene in The Princess Bride? Anime crimefighters are one thing; a young Cary Elwes is another.

The problem with Robinson's inclusion of child-care in the leisure category is that it conflicts with most people's assumption that by leisure time we mean free time: activities we engage in freely because we enjoy them, not from a sense of duty or obligation. For me, at least, the first five years of child-care are driven by duty. I love my children; I am fascinated by their development and dedicated to the task of learning who they are. But assembling Dora puzzles and playing games of Uno are not examples of free time. Neither is shivering at the top of a tobogganing hill.

Nevertheless, the joy of the last couple of years, for me, has been the gradual erosion of this distinction. When I take my children to the beach, that is not leisure: it is suffering endured for a cause. But increasingly, there are times when my free time dovetails with my children's. Bub belts out "We Are the Champions" on Rock Band while hubby and I accompany him on guitar. Pie and her best friend sip apple juice at the local tea shop while their mothers down cups of Irish Breakfast with brownies.

I remember the first time I realized that spending time with me could qualify as free time for my mother. We had gone shopping downtown at the old Eaton's building and then we ate lunch in the department-store cafeteria. I had chocolate milk and a croissant and at some point during that meal it dawned on me that my mother wasn't taking care of me anymore: she was hanging out with me; she was doing this because it was fun, for her as well as for me. That probably wasn't the first time she had experienced her time with me as leisure rather than work, but it was the first time I realized that our relationship had shifted in that way.

Already with my children I catch glimpses of that kind of interaction. Shopping is rarely the best way to achieve it: 4-year-olds have different taste in stores than almost-40-year-olds and even when we can agree on where to shop, we disagree on when to leave - either the children get bored long before I do, or else they flatly refuse to go until I bribe, threaten, and/or drag them from the premises kicking and screaming. But every once in awhile we get it right. Like that time last summer when Pie and I peeked into a little home decorating shop in a neighbouring town; I found a candle in the exact shade of blue I had been looking for and Pie found an Ugly Doll exactly like the one she had spotted excitedly in a recent issue of Canadian House and Home. We made our purchases triumphantly and exited the store with expressions of mutual congratulation. Times like that are not merely leisure time - they're the best leisure hours of them all.