In George Saunders’ 2012 short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” an overextended father warding off an encroaching psychotic break starts keeping a diary, addressed to the future. In one entry, he compares the Sisyphean task of parenting to a game of Whac-a-Mole:
Family life in our time sometimes seems like game of Whac-a-Mole, future reader. Future generations still have? Plastic mole emerges, you whack with hammer, he dies, falls, another emerges, you whack, kill? Sometimes seems that, as soon as one kid happy, another kid “pops up,” i.e., registers complaint, requiring parent to “whack” kid, i.e., address complaint.
I am, I suspect, not the first person to feel just this way about the task of teaching first-year college students how to write, perhaps especially in the fall semester: the sense of an unceasing escalation of tasks, the breathtaking speed with which fifteen weeks evaporate, the impossibility of accounting for when and where the next mole will pop up. Within the time of any class period, too, there are these unforeseeable emergences, more questions than can ever be answered.
I have been thinking a lot about one piece of advice for how to manage such moles (perhaps less a piece of advice than a utopian ideal): Make Everything You Teach Multiply Motivated—i.e., whack more than one mole with every hammer.
Below, I sketch out how one very short text—a chapter from Walker Percy’s 1983 Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book—allowed me to address a lot of topics within the space of less than a full class period. (Click through for a pdf of the chapter—highly recommended.)
(To contextualize a bit: my students are beginning to draft essays about a text that they have been working with for about the last four weeks. The essay calls for them to assess the reliability of the primary text’s central claim against its own evidence—and to import other “secondary” texts that discuss a related idea, using those secondary texts as lenses for thinking about some implications of the primary text. My main focus for this class period was to get my students thinking about their respective primary texts in terms of the questions posed by those texts, and to consider how their secondary texts provide ways of responding to – or pushing back against – those questions.)
Here are some of the moles that the chapter allowed me to whack:
- It models a strong introduction.
The chapter, titled “The Fearful Self: Why the Self is So Afraid of Being Found Out,” begins:
A recent poll asked people what they feared most. A majority of respondents agreed in ranking one fear above all others, above fear of sickness, accidents, crime, war, even death. It is the fear of speaking before a group, stage fright.
Yet, in the conventional objective scientific view, man is an organism among other organisms and a man should therefore not be terrified to be surrounded by his own kind, other like organisms who are not merely not hostile but by the very nature of the occasion well disposed, and to open his mouth and speak in a language he has learned from his fellowmen. A wolf howling alone in a wolfpack doesn’t get stage fright.
Two principles of introductions that my students recognized and were able to name were Percy’s engagement with his reader, and his setting up of a problem or question by “turning back against” a received way of thinking (i.e., It is reasonable to have stage fright, since it is the most common fear –> Is it reasonable to have stage fright?).
- It demystifies what we mean by “essay.”
Because my students are working on essays, I liked this chapter for the way it literalizes some of the essential moves of essayistic writing: after the two-paragraph introduction, Percy goes on to write a multiple-choice question and answers, and two thought experiments. These formats, which Percy borrows from the self-help genre he satirizes in Lost in the Cosmos, perform a kind of strategic oversimplification of the process of writing an essay: you begin with a question, and you test out many possible responses; or, you experiment with following your digressive thoughts in order to see where they eventually lead you.
Take a look at what he does with the multiple-choice question format/genre:
Question: What is so frightening to so many people about speaking to an audience?
(a) Is it because the ever-present chance of making a fool of oneself before one person is multiplied by the number of listeners, so that an audience of 50 persons is 50 times more terrifying than one? Is an audience of 50 million a million times more terrifying than 50?
(b) Is it because, since one person, friend or stranger, is often difficult to deal with, 50 people are 50 times more difficult?
(e) Is it because you know that what you present to the world is a persona, a mask, that it is a very fragile disguise, that God alone knows what is underneath since you clearly do not, perhaps nothing less than the self itself, and that if the persona fails, what is revealed is unspeakable (literally, because you can’t speak it), like what was revealed when the Phantom of the Opera had his mask ripped off, a no-face, a vacancy, a hole which is much worse than the ugliest face—so frightening, in fact, that you remember, as a child, crawling under the seat in the movie?
Only by going through the process of “testing” multiple answers to his initial question is Percy able to arrive, in option (e), at what seems to be his central idea. (I also admire the way the multiple-choice format implies that its answers are always somehow congruent, whereas Percy reveals in his answers the essentially incongruous “turn” his thinking has taken.)
- It lends itself well to imitation.
Before showing them this chapter, I had asked my students to write out a question that they were still reckoning with in the primary text they are writing their own essays about. After we read Percy’s chapter aloud as a class, I asked them to write out several multiple choice answers to the initial question they had written down, and to retain the question form in their mutliple choice answers—in other words, to use Percy’s form as a springboard for thinking further about their own questions and ideas.
- It demonstrates the work that a good title accomplishes.
The title of the chapter (“The Fearful Self: Why the Self is so Afraid of Being Found Out”) seems straightforward enough for a chapter that is, ostensibly, about the fear of public speaking. Yet, by the time we reach the middle of the chapter (see multiple choice response “e” above), it becomes clear that the title in fact refers to the idea that Percy is developing implicitly: that when we speak before an audience, we are less afraid of others, and more afraid of our own selves.
- It enacts thinking as play.
The chapter continues,
Thought Experiment: If you are a shy person, which of the following situations is the most terrifying to you? Which is the least terrifying?
In the first, you are a mid-echelon executive in the sales division of a large company in which you are both successful and well liked. You are scheduled to deliver a speech at the annual banquet, an honor. You have months to prepare.
In the second, you are the character Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps. Pursued down a street by his enemies, he ducks into a doorway which happens to be a stage door and finds himself on a stage at a political rally where he is mistaken for the guest speaker and introduced. He has not the faintest idea what he is supposed to talk about.
In the third, the world’s population has been destroyed by nuclear wars. Only you have survived. The earth is invaded by extraterrestrial beings. They capture you and haul you up before a large tribunal and make it known to you that you must give an account of yourself, what you are dong here, why you should be spared, etc.
Explain your choice.
This section again reinforces a principle of essayistic writing: that the reader needs to think with you, to follow a train of thought. It also demonstrates a principle that could be transported to other kinds of academic writing: that effective argument need not be, necessarily, pugilistic; it can also be playful.
- It introduced the term “thought experiment” into our shared discourse.
- It foreshadowed a theme that will, undoubtedly, become prominent in an upcoming class, when I ask my students to read parts of their finished essays aloud in front of their classmates.
Of course, I could list an equal number of things that this text did not accomplish for our class, moles that went by the wayside. (Percy’s screwball humor, sadly, did not resonate with everyone.) But the text did, at least, for this particular moment in the semester, alleviate some of the pressure of trying to Do Everything, and I fully intend to keep asking my students, ad nauseum, to think beyond answers (a) and (b); to remind them that, until they’ve arrived all the way at answer (e), there is further work to be done.
 George Saunders, “The Semplica-Girl Diaires.” The New Yorker. October 15, 2012.
 Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.