Despite the title, this thick reader with its yawn-inducing block lettering, surrounded by a non-descript forest green, Subject & Strategy: A Writer’s Reader may seem impenetrable, but this anthology packs quite an impressive selection of essays that spark insightful discussions for incoming frosh. Normally, these types of readers have me running because they usually dole out topical issues such as abortion, smoking, gun control, each handled with snark and ripped from the New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, Harpers, and Glamour. These anthologies quickly become dated for their politics and their commentary on trends and fashion, but, much to my surprise and great delight, editors Paul Escholz and Alfred Rosa have committed an outstanding job collecting discourses that are highly relevant for today’s concerns but also promise lasting power.
We started off reading Isaac Asimov’s “Those Crazy Ideas.” Students snickered at his use of the word “crackpot” which has come to mean something entirely different for their generation and reveals a slight streak of anachronism on Asimov’s part, but once they got past the verbiage, we had a great discussion on what it takes to be creative. Creativity is not about inventing something entirely new but requires constant combination, adding bits here, mixing bits there, collecting and alchemizing to see what you get. Remix, repeat, and review. Try again, and again, and again.
The women students truly enjoyed and found inspiration to write their essays in response to Maya Angelou’s “Sister Flowers” and Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden.” Both are complex tales about the power of story, language, family, and self-perception. Though they struggled with the layers of meaning in these pieces, students were obviously empowered by Angelou and Walker’s words.
Deborah Tannen’s works, “How to Give Orders Like a Man” and “Sex, Lies, and Conservation” generated involved debate. In the latter piece, Tannen explores the differences between gender interactions. She writes:
Women’s conversational habits are as frustrating to men as men’s are to women. Men who expect silent attention interpret a stream of listener-noise as overreaction or impatience. Also, when women talk to each other in a close, comfortable setting, they often overlap, finish each other sentences, and anticipate what the other is about to say. This practice, which I call “participatory listenership,” is often perceived by men as an interruption, intrusion, and lack of attention…But many men see their conversational duty as pointing out the other side of an argument. This is heard as disloyalty by women, and refusal to offer the requisite support. It is not that women don’t want to see other points of view, but that they prefer them phrased as suggestions and inquiries rather than as direct challenges
Both women and men in our class immediately related to Tannen’s arguments and had their own stories and experiences to share about the differences between the sexes. Exciting fodder.
We ended the semester with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” which is a difficult read but crammed with history, politics, social interaction, and personal struggle. We had to spend a good deal of time discussing where Burma/Myanmar is and its importance to the British Empire before we could really probe into Orwell’s essay. I had to mention the recent release of Ang Suu Kyi, who students were unfamiliar with, and they asked whether she was allowed to govern during her house arrest. We learned a great deal in class that day.
Escholz and Rosa have carefully put together an impressive collection that engenders interest and prompts smart discussions, which fuel engaged writing for their own essay assignments. The questions at the end of each piece are well directed and help guide students to a more informed reading. There’s also helpful supplemental readings on brainstorming for an essay, organizing essays, conducting research as well as grammar and punctuation tutorials. Overall, this a highly useful anthology, which I will definitely employ again.