More years ago than I care to remember, I worked my way through graduate school by teaching multiple sections of that dreaded course known as freshman composition. It was required for all university undergraduates and, not surprisingly, they resented every minute of the time they spent dutifully writing themes that were just as dutifully returned, lathered with red ink. It’s fair to say that they didn’t know much, certainly not much about the niceties of English prose, but they knew this: I was a teaching assistant, or T.A. and apparently that was enough. After all, “T.A. Jokes” was a regular column in the university newspaper, and while, most of the fare was pretty lame (generally, Polish jokes translated to an academic setting), my students figured that I was not only the enemy but a lame-brained one to boot.
What to do? There was little point in bringing my Phi Beta Kappa key to class and letting them have a gander. For one thing, they had no clue what Phi Beta Kappa, the high-prestige honor society, was. For another, that would have been just the sort of thing that some nerd in a T.A. joke might do. No, “telling” them that I was one smart cookie wouldn’t work. But what if I could find a way of showing them? I mulled over the matter for a couple of semesters, all the while smarting over the lack of respect these yahoos were heaving my way. And then I hit upon a plan that took a certain amount of daring, but that just might turn a bad patch into a better one.
What I came up with was this: I would simply ask a fellow T.A. to knock on my classroom door about halfway through a session. I would then make my way down the aisles, open the door a crack, and ask what the interrupter wanted. “Holy cow, Sandy!” he would blurt out, “J.D. Salinger is on the phone and he wants to talk with you.” He was instructed to announce his message just loud enough so that students in the back row could hear. And then came the part with just enough wacky genius so it never failed to work: I would respond in a calm, carefully measured tone, “Tell Jerry that I’m teaching a class and that I’ll call him later.” The whispers “Wow! He knows J.D. Salinger!” would roll up the rows as I made my way back to the lectern, where that lesson and all the ones that followed would proceed on a very different footing. A few years later I substituted Joseph Heller for Salinger without losing so much as a beat.
What literary figure, I wonder, could a T.A. now count on to do the trick with this year’s crop of freshmen? Not a single possibility springs to mind certainly not old-timers such as John Updike, Norman Mailer, or Philip Roth, much less the likes of a younger, bandanna-sporting David Foster Wallace. Somebody trying to duplicate my experiment would find the name of any serious writer falling on deaf ears. A friend suggested that Stephen King just might do the trick, but I’m not sure that I’d risk even him. And even if contemporary students would gush about Mr. King, I’m not sure that he’s the sort of serious writer I had in mind. Better to play it safe with the likes of Tom Cruise or Madonna. Even better, retire this cheesy drama altogether.
“How did things go so far?” Marlon Brando’s character asks at one point in “The Godfather.” His son has been brutally murdered in a bitter fight between crime families and he pleads for the vendetta to stop. But the world has changed even as the don has not. Drug trafficking brings in more hard cash than gambling, illegal liquor and prostitution combined. In director Francis Ford Coppola’s version of tragedy, that which must be cannot be, and that which cannot be, must be. I belabor “The Godfather” connection because, for better or worse, it is popular film rather than print that now provides a ready source of cultural allusion.
Take, for example, the memorable line from “A League of Their Own” “There’s no crying in baseball.” An exasperated Tom Hanks, playing an over-the-hill baseball player reduced to coaching a women’s team during World War II, utters the words when he notices that one of his players is crying after he has (rightly) ragged her out for making a bad fielding play. My students nod knowingly when I mention the film, the scene and the words and then get the point when I remind them that there’s no crying in criticism or creative writing either. If I were still teaching freshman composition, I’d use the maxim and I bet it would work. True enough, I’ll have to retire the object lesson when “A League of Their Own” slips down the memory hole, but, for now, it works nicely, thank you very much.
Unfortunately, the point that all manner of commentators have been making recently namely, that ours in no longer a culture in which serious writers matter as they once did is true, all too true. And all I need do to feel its full force is remember what I once did to get the attention of the inattentive, and, yes, to remember as well what we learned about essayists such as George Orwell and E.B. White when everyone in the room thought of me as the Genuine Goods.
Sanford Pinsker is professor of humanities at Franklin and Marshall College.