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June / July 2013

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Dr. Tierney Praises Students

When Racheal Benner asked me if she could do a post-retirement interview, I responded with a question (an old teacher technique):  can I write about two pieces of student writing that I have used over the years to teach other students?  Warning:  I do find myself in the embarrassing position of saying good things publicly about engineers.

The first is a response I got on a final exam in what we called then a Busi-Tech writing class.  The assignment was to write a letter to me requesting that I get papers back to the students sooner. Since they usually wrote 1-page letters, this was not a problem for me that semester.

Here is what Ron Harney, 1982 AE, wrote:

Dear Mr. Tierney,
            Have you ever seen the small model rockets that you can buy, build, and fly without an engineering degree?
            Have you ever seen them fly?
            They take off, and in a split second they are gone.  Then, all of a sudden, a puff of smoke appears way up in the air and there’s your rocket coming slowly down to earth on a parachute.  But the problem is it takes them forever to come down, and you’re anxiously waiting so you can check for damage and launch again.
            This is how I feel waiting for you to return my papers.
            Could you please put a smaller parachute on my papers?

In teaching persuasion I have always preached attention to audience (not yourself), imagery (the use of sensuous language to get into the brains of readers & force them to participate) and to tone. He does not harangue me here as some of the students did in their letters.  He makes me feel the way he does.  He sets an unthreatening tone in his humorous opening.  The imagery in paragraph three is excellent. The analogy works.  Even though I didn’t particularly believe he or any other student was all that anxious to “launch again,” he had me wanting to believe him.  He sealed the deal with his short last sentence.  Here is politeness, imagery again, and a metaphorical use of language sure to please any teacher of English.  I haven’t seen or talked to Ron since shortly after Taylor Hall opened and he toured the building.  Thank you, Ron, for helping me to teach persuasion to later students!

In Introduction to Literature I hand out a 3-page list of some of the reasons that reading great literature is good for you.  In the fall of 2002 I asked students to write their final paper on what they had learned about life from the readings they were assigned that semester.

Aimee Nagy, 2004 ME, wrote the paper I have read to students ever since towards the end of the semester.  I use it for several reasons.  First, it shows how good a worker Aimee is and how much fun a hard-working student can have that others miss out on.  It shows creativity in taking on an assignment.  My syllabus always includes poems & stories students are responsible for on the final that we have generally not discussed in class. Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer” was one of those stories.  The class would not have had to read this until just before the final, but Aimee read everything ahead of time and chose this story as a model for her paper, even to the extent of using the second person (you) as the very rare narrative form.

Read everything and everywhere, she writes: 

Just read.  Then think.  It is best if you start to think while you’re reading, say after the title of whatever it is you’re reading.  The quicker you begin to think, the more rapidly your thoughts will come and the harder it will be to slow them down.  You will begin thinking after the first poem you read and enjoy the thought of thinking about the poem.  You will question your professor’s ideas in contrast with your own ideas.  You will begin to want to read more.
Relate “Those Winter Sundays” to your family.  Relate it particularly to your father.  Again think.  Call your dad when you leave class to tell him you love him.  Write down why you called him on a post-it note and stick it to your desk.

            “Literature teaches us about life by focusing on essential human concerns: Love, death, sex, right/wrong, values, ideas and ethics.”  Remember this quote.  It will be a recurring theme throughout the semester.

She goes on to discuss John Donne’s famous love poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” The most famous image in the poem occurs when Donne likens himself and his love to a carpenter’s compass (I think plane geometry myself).

Ask a question about it in class.  Scribble notes in the margins of your book.  Underline.  Paraphrase.  Mark down all the literary devices you can find….Think about it.  Relate it to your own life.  Notice the comparisons and try to make up comparisons for the lovers in your life.  Realize you don’t have lovers in your life.  Maybe a ‘dull sublunary lover,” here and there, but no compasses….When you lean, you lean alone.

In that last line she picks up Donne’s basic metaphor and creates her own.

She concludes with the following and then adds again the quote about literature from above:

Go over your list of things to do for the day, like you habitually do every day.  Think about destroying the list.  At least you are thinking.  Hear one of your favorite new country songs by Alan Jackson, “I’m a work in progress,” and chuckle.  Aren’t we all.

Her paper ultimately was a good summary of some of the major works we studied, of what I was trying to accomplish in the class, and a good demonstration of her own creativity, her ability to model her style in a new way, and of how involvement in a class can bring one more enjoyment than otherwise might have been suspected.

I have thanked Aimee several times but over the years have lost touch with her.  I thank her again.

The students who have heard me read these writings are always awed, and the more aware are sometimes humiliated that they didn’t put the care, creativity and effort into their papers and courses that these two excellent students did in theirs.  Frankly, I think that’s a pretty good lesson in and of itself.

Dr. Tom Tierney
Director, the Humanities Institute
English Professor Emeritus

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