Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Clayton, Jackson and Durante. And Robertson.

As I get deeper into the semester in feature writing, it's natural that I begin to imagine what metaphor best describes my teaching style. That's one of the pleasures of feature writing. Metaphor assumes a more prominent position in the writer's toolbox.

So what metaphor for the way I present? It's not preaching. It's not hectoring. It's not begging, tin cup in hand, though sometimes that's what it feels like.

What it is without a doubt is vaudeville -- broad, old-fashioned, certainly repetitious given the fact that I have performed these same tired routines in so many desolate tank towns in so many shabby performance palaces as long past their prime as I am. (Note to self: figure out how to cross out previous phrase and sub, "taught these same courses in a variety of academic settings.")

It's a kind of friendly comedy, but there is some art in it, and some substance, too, just as the old joke "Take my wife. Please" explores the nuances of meaning possible in the colloquial imperative as well as the degree to which misogyny is the default setting in American life.

Today in feature writing, I was preparing the students for the restaurant review, a little assignment I see as a kind of treat, a reward for more intellectually strenuous assignments during the first month of school.

(I'm not saying it's easy to do restaurant reviews. I'm just saying a clever student can turn a review into an essay on anything from neighborhood history to modern sexual mores -- what does he/she expect in return for paying the check? -- to agricultural practices during the Peloponessian wars, just as a clever person can turn a book review into a clever discussion of what the clever person believes, the book be damned.)

So I have fun talking about all the ways students can unpack this gift of an assignment. Somewhere near the litany's end, I suggested they might interview a waiter after the eating and observing are done, to find out the inside scoop on doing the job. Turns out one of my students has worked in food service and he said his inside secret -- something I didn't know -- was that he and his coworkers get so tired of the same old jokes from the people they serve. People impose their little jokes on a captive audience, just like teaching.

He does a lot of catering. You're carrying in a case of booze, my student says, and every other guy says, "Just take it on out to my car." He shared a couple others. I don't remember them.

I said, "Oh yeah, that reminds me of that stale old joke. 'Hey, the guy says to the waiter. 'What's this fly doing in my soup.' And the waiter says, 'The backstroke.'"

My student said, "I've never heard that one before. That's pretty good."

Ancient evenings. Vaudeville.


....J.Michael Robertson said...
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B. Lundigan said...

Based on what I've read on this blog over the past month, I think you are a good teacher. You certainly have a sense of humor, and I don't think you would write about teaching as often as you do if you weren't concerned about your students.

G Pabst said...

I find refuge in stand-up comedy (as opposed to vaudeville, I don't sing and dance) in the classroom. It makes me seem less "intellectual," less scary and more approachable - or so former students tell me.
I'm not sure how to decode less intellectual - but less scary/more approachable works for me!
I'm occasionally up late enough for Letterman and he gives me ideas.