Month: September 2014

Class Introduction Fall 2014

[Author’s Note—I have recently returned to the college classroom as an English composition instructor, an exciting time in my life. For the first writing assignment in all of my classes, I ask my students to introduce themselves in writing. As an example, I produced the following text to introduce myself, and I read it to my classes. My students responded with wonderful written pieces, and I look forward to interacting with each magnificent writing community over the next semester. –SG]

The first descriptor most people notice about me is the length of my hair. I don’t have any tattoos or piercings, yet I will often receive from new acquaintances a curious glance, an uncomfortable stare, or a remark—either complimentary or off-putting. It also seems that the older the new acquaintance is, the more offended their reaction often is. My mother, whom I love dearly, is the biggest champion for my receiving a haircut immediately: “You’d look so handsome if you’d just cut your hair,” she’ll often tell me. While I was looking for a job, the lectures about cutting my hair came up more frequently. However, I stubbornly have been growing my hair for almost three full years now. I will introduce myself to you by giving a written explanation as to why I have done so.

The first reason I have for growing my hair long is related to the collegiate field of English language study in which I engage …specifically, Stephen Greenblatt’s literary theory of self-fashioning. Briefly, Greenblatt asserts that we shape our individual cultural identity in response to the literature that we read and view collectively. We understand each other as a culture best by exposing ourselves to literary texts, which of course include novels, short stories, and poetry, but also might include movies, TV shows, plays, music, sports, and even video games. As individuals, we shape or fashion our identities according to an understanding of how we want to represent ourselves according to a cultural interpretation based on the plots, characters, settings, and themes we consume.

The length of my hair is meant to identify myself as a literary symbol that represents my apathy for discrimination, which is rampant within our American culture and consistent through the works of historic literature which I have read. As a white man, it’s easy enough for me to keep my hair short and blend in as a “normal” citizen, but others do not have that luxury. A black man or an Hispanic man will be automatically judged by their skin color. A woman might be ogled or talked down to because of her gender. A young person might be treated unfairly because of their clothing or tattoos or piercings. A gay person might even be ostracized because of the inflection of his voice. Keeping my hair long is a way to represent myself…to show how easy it is for people to classify one as an other, to experience the discrimination that occurs frequently in our culture, to remind myself that it is easy to become complacent within a culture when you are a member of the “approved” demographic, and to include myself as a combatant of discrimination within our modern society, which is often quick to label me as a stoner, hippie, or criminal. The simple act of growing my hair long allows me to symbolically advocate against discrimination. With Greenblatt’s theory in mind, I have fashioned myself with the romantic notion of a cultural warrior, when in reality, I’d say I’ve succeeded at becoming a cultural instigator.

The second reason I grow my hair long is similar to the first because it represents my religious beliefs, specifically my interpretations of Biblical text. I have studied the Bible my entire life, as I was groomed early to be a preacher or missionary. I decided to follow a path of studying literature and teaching language, which includes Biblical study, but I have found that this is a source of disappointment to some Christians, as my study has not coincided with many of the teachings of various Christian churches. One of my earliest studies was etymological concerning First Corinthians 11, which does fashion gender identity in our culture to this day. In the chapter, Paul, the architect of the Christian church, designates men as being able to hold their head up high in God’s presence, while women must show humility by covering their head. The word cover is sometimes interpreted as hair in many Biblical translations. We can still see how this is interpreted in our modern American society by how men and women are expected to wear their hair. We can also see how this interpretation can contribute to discrimination based on expectations of gender, which might be problematic based on linguistic interpretation. I wear my hair long, as a man, to endorse humility before God…also, a belief in Jesus, of whom many images show that the Son of God had long hair also. I also frequently reference the Old Testament story of Samson and Delilah, in which Samson’s hair was the source of his strength. Delilah tempted Samson to cut his hair, which was his downfall. As a literary interpretation, we can see how the story is an allegory of the evils of female persuasion…which are found frequently in Biblical text and literature, such as the story of Lilith, or the Greek tragedy of Madea, written by Euripedes. I’ve found that our literature, both secular and religious, has shaped cultural norms to perpetuate false gender identity. I also admit some amusement of the fact that fundamentalist Christians are the ones who often become most offended by a man with long hair.

Related to this feature of my identity, in which I challenge social norms, I must allude to how this involves my role as your instructor. I recently watched a Biblical film called God’s Not Dead, in which Kevin Sorbo plays a college professor. Now I’ve met Sorbo at a comic convention, and he seems like a swell guy…but he plays an incredibly brutal professor who insists that students cannot have beliefs that differ from his own. While I will admit that you may encounter a professor like this in your collegiate careers, I must stress that I have no such intentions. It’s a bit disturbing to me that it has become socially accepted that college professors are all atheist, liberal whack-jobs that will not accept opposing religious viewpoints, but I can’t deny that it may be the case with some college instructors. I recently had an on-line discussion with a scholarly friend about an article titled, “Let’s Stop Trying to Teach Students Critical Thinking,” which we will read in our class. The discussion alluded to critical thinking as a tool for liberal professors to create conformity for multiculturalism and diversity. The claim: critical thinking is, in fact, NOT critical thinking, and should be referred to as indoctrination. My response:

I was under the impression that critical thinking is intended to allow an individual to oppose social indoctrination…I don’t think challenging social norms or institutions is necessarily the sole weapon of liberal professors, as this might indicate. I can testify, as a teacher of critical thinking, that I am careful to allow students to come to their own conclusions, instead of instilling what I deem to be “the right one.” I cannot say that I am always successful, but I’d be a bit handcuffed as an educator if I was only allowed to teach the ideas that are universally accepted, especially since I have found such ideas do not exist in the human realm.

My point to my students: it is not my goal to shape you to conform to my ideas. My goal is to show you how you might be capable of shaping yourself through language study and practiced written and spoken expression and rational support.

Finally, the third reason I grow my hair long is innocuous enough…I turned 40 this year, and I’m frightened of growing old. Most people assume that I am in my twenties when they first see my long hair (as long as they’re not close enough to see the gray), and I admit the long hair might be a way for me to retain my youth, especially since my body keeps reminding me that I am no longer 20 years old. I also want to convince people that I am not pretentious, as can be the case for a college language instructor. I enjoy many fun activities, such as movies (Oscar-worthy and junk-food movies), comic books (still collecting), music (currently Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, and John Legend), sports (fantasy football enthusiast!), nature (I’d be a professional beach bum, if such a thing paid well)…and I welcome discussions about things that are interesting to you. As I’ve already indicated, there are many things that are culturally relevant and contribute to our greater understanding of how our shared language system works in college and when applied to the so-called real-world. One of my goals for our class is to show you how education does not have to be a stuffy, harder-than-it-has-to-be task, in which you have to prove your acumen by completing the most amount of homework possible. Education can be interesting and fun, especially when you see how it can help you to understand the world in which you live. It is my authentic desire that my students want to come to class, not look for reasons to abandon the course.

I’ve found that the best method of doing this is to attempt to introduce myself as candidly and honestly as possible in writing during the first week. Getting to know one another is an integral part of a writing course, as we will share one another’s textual representations in an effort to utilize the collective as a writing community for each member’s benefit. It’s a good idea to introduce ourselves to one another in this manner, and this is what I will ask you to do for your first in-class written assignment today…