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At the end of the summer, the educator and writer Mike Rose is dead a spontaneous brain hemorrhage at his home in Santa Monica; he was seventy-seven. I learned of his death the ruthless way we often do in 2021: through a friend’s Facebook post. The news was a big shock. Of course, Mike was a few years old on me, but he always seemed to be in excellent health. Tributes from his students, colleagues, and those who loved his writing quickly appeared on the internet. His revolutionary book “Lives at the border”, From 1989 onwards, exerted a powerful and benevolent influence on American classrooms. A friend described its impact this way: “Anyone who remembers a writing teacher who cared about them benefits from Mike’s work.

In 1990, Bill Moyers devoted an episode of his PBS series “A World of Ideas” to teaching Mike. (An extract is posted on Mike’s blog.) The interview features Mike at his best: charming, passionate, thoughtful, persuasive. He describes the education to Moyers as “an invitation” and as “an attempt to bring people into a kind of conversation, into a set of ideas, into ways of thinking and conversing, of reading and writing. , which is new to them “. In 1983, while Mike was teaching at UCLA, he saw the damage done by an error-driven teaching model that offered simplistic mechanical “fixes” to students’ writing. It was an ostensibly scientific approach to composition writing that equated students with their “deficits” and implicitly encouraged students to identify with them. Mike tells Moyers about a student who judges traditional writing teachers like a donkey’s cap. “English is just not my thing,” the student told him.

Mike, on the other hand, provided writing studies with a heart: he modeled a deep compassion that called on teachers to understand students as whole people, with very mixed feelings about academic writing, which nevertheless try to do a very difficult thing. He had a keen knack for discovering, through intensive individual work with writers, the deep (and often poignant) logic behind surface errors. His work heralded a paradigm shift in the way writing is taught in our education system, from elementary school to middle school. A former classmate wrote to me that Mike had taught him that “every piece of writing, from first grade to Samuel Beckett.” . . represents a complex, fascinating, almost miraculous collection of intellectual and imaginative processes. Teaching writing can be more than pointing out grammatical errors.

Back in the days when Mike was writing “Lives on the Boundary,” however, writing education and literary studies barely spoke to each other. UCLA’s English department in the 1980s sought to prepare graduate students for faculty jobs, which, as far as they still (slightly) existed, were mostly snatched up by graduates of UCLA’s programs. ‘Ivy League. Professors took little interest in the types of positions they sent the majority of their graduates to: jobs in less prestigious institutions with heavier teaching loads that included much of the teaching of writing. Student writing and writing pedagogy were largely ignored in the English department and outsourced to another unit on campus. That unit, Mike Rose’s unit — Writing Programs — was housed in an entirely different building. As the name suggests, it was not a department but only a program; its professors were lecturers, not eligible for tenure. The distance across the courtyard between Rolfe Hall (English) and Kinsey Hall (Writing Programs) was a silent allegory of the intellectual and spiritual distance between the two units.

It was perfectly possible to leave UCLA with a doctorate. in English in those years (as I did) without ever having met Mike. I never had a lesson with him; the only time I met him in a formal setting was when he was invited in English 375 — Teaching Apprentice Practicum — a compulsory course for graduate teaching assistants. He radiated with himself and with us a comfort that I had never encountered in my literary studies classes. He taught us “the abilities hidden by class and cultural barriers”, and that “we should Welcome certain types of errors, take them into account in the programs we develop, analyze them rather than simply criticize them. Error marks the spot where education begins. Mike was on the sly showing graduate students in English how Actually teaching and caring for students, while by day we learned literary theory and wrote dense (and ultimately largely unread) essays.

My first full-time position, as a Visiting Assistant Professor, was at Loyola Marymount University, where, in this case, Mike had enrolled. During my first semester, I was assigned to teach an advanced composition course for prospective primary and secondary teachers. I didn’t know much about how to teach such a course, and nothing, really, about the teacher training program. So I attributed “Life at the border”. On some level, it was an obvious choice: LMU was the college that changed Mike’s life, and the book tells that story. He also talks about the importance of knowing where your students are coming from and listening to the stories they tell, and how to help them tell them. These are all good lessons for student teachers who are preparing to enter their own classroom. In a move more intuitive than cerebral, I more or less pitted “Lives at the Frontier” against a few books from the growing list of edges from conservative sources that were using lore as a stick against today’s students – Allan Bloom’s “The closing of the American mind“and ED Hirsch, Jr.,”Cultural literacy. “It was a rout: Rose by knockout in fifteen weeks. But then, it was never a fair fight (and I was hardly an impartial referee).

Here’s the most important thing Mike taught me (maybe without knowing it): Nostalgia is dangerous bullshit. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was the hidden thesis of this course that I taught — Bloom, Hirsch, et al. were merchants in a malignant form of nostalgia, telling us that the reading public – or elementary, high school, and college students – were cleaner, smarter, working harder in some of the ill-defined good ol ‘days. Once you know how to look for it, a criticism of that kind of thought runs throughout Mike’s writing. But I remember being most struck by his presentation in “Lives at the border”. It’s an admirable writer’s trick: Mike swivels around a litany of contemporary whining about the inability of American students to read and write, including the infamous News week cover of a magazine “Why Johnny Can’t Write”, to almost identical grimaces of Harvard professors and a president of Brown University, some of which date back to 1841. Johnny, it seems, does has never been able to write – or has always been able to write, at least whenever we have been willing to take on the challenge of teaching an increasingly diverse and diversely literate student body. “Is it a declining education system,” Mike urged us to ask, “or is it a system that attempts to honor – through radical change – the many demands of a pluralistic democracy? “


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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson