Sunday, June 3, 2012

In Defense of Non-fiction

The overarching Common Core vs. No Common Core and Core Knowledge vs. Balanced Literacy debates (see this New York Times article and this Learning Matters segment) have spawned another debate: fiction vs. non-fiction. I think this misses the point and causes their critics to unfairly tarnish “non-fiction” as a genre. My apprehensions about the Common Core Standards aside, just as I defended the lecture several posts ago, I feel compelled to defend non-fiction.

In the creative writing communities I’ve been a part of, there is debate over how much attention to pay to labels such as fiction and non-fiction or poetry and prose. Many advocate for sticking to the designations but others find it needlessly restrictive. Writers will critique the work of other writers not on what it does or what they learn from reading it but on whether it has the proper label affixed to it. This is a good piece of work, but is this really poetry? To which I want to respond: Does it matter? Is that the most worthwhile thing to talk about here? Why get hung up on labels? Literature is literature. Because of the This American Life-Mike Daisey scandal, a similar questioning of David Sedaris’ work is being mounted, but Sedaris is not a scientist or journalist. Does it change his contribution to the understanding of humanity that he’s embellished or made some stuff up, that his work might include fictional accounts? Not in my mind, it doesn’t.

There is a fantastic interview in The Paris Review with John McPhee about his formative experiences as a high school English student, the writing life, being a non-fiction writer, and teaching writing. Here is an excerpt that reflects some of the debates that occur around discussions of labels and fiction vs. non-fiction:

Interviewer: Was there any significant change in terms of interest, or in the way that people viewed nonfiction writing? 
McPhee: The only significant change is that, in a general way, nonfiction writing began to be regarded as more than something for wrapping fish. It acquired various forms of respectability. When I was in college, no teacher taught anything that was like the stuff that I write. The subject was beneath the consideration of the academic apparatus.
Sometime during the eighties I was invited to do a reading at the University of Utah, and I accepted. And several weeks later, the person who approached me got back in touch and said he was really embarrassed and sorry. While he had wanted me to come to Utah and do a reading and talk to students, his colleagues did not. They didn’t approve of the genre I write in. I wrote back to him and said that I really appreciated his wanting me to be there. And certainly I didn’t feel anything toward him but gratitude, but as for his colleagues—when they come into the twentieth century I’ll be standing under a lamp looking at my watch. 
Interviewer: What do you call the type of writing you do? Your course at Princeton has sometimes been called The Literature of Fact and sometimes Creative Nonfiction. 
McPhee: I prefer to call it factual writing. Those other titles all have flaws. But so does fiction. Fiction is a weird name to use. It doesn’t mean anything—it just means “made” or “to make.” Facere is the root. There’s no real way to lay brackets around something and say, This is what it is. The novelists that write terrible, trashy, horrible stuff; the people that write things that change the world by their loftiness: fiction. Well, it’s a name, and it means “to make.” Since you can’t define it in a single word, why not use a word that’s as simple as that?
Whereas nonfiction—what the hell, that just says, this is nongrapefruit we’re having this morning. It doesn’t mean anything. You had nongrapefruit for breakfast; think how much you know about that breakfast. I don’t object to any of these things because it’s so hard to pick—it’s like naming your kid. You know, the child carries that label all through life. 
Sound familiar? Non-fiction was, as science fiction is now (though in light of the recent New Yorker  "Science Fiction Issue," perhaps this is changing), a literary stepchild and remnants of that past disdain, of non-fiction as not being “serious” enough, remain. There are works of non-fiction that are great works and there are works of fiction that are junk. As a writer and voracious consumer of non-fiction, I bristle when critics of the Common Core disparage non-fiction as merely “instructional manuals” or “informational materials” (though, yes, kids need to learn how to read those, too. I, for one, would like for my kid to know how to read a bus schedule and dishwasher detergent directions). Non-fiction informs but it also contributes to our understanding of the human condition as much a fiction does.

As I said in my last post, it doesn’t help when CCS architect David Coleman diminishes fiction and student writing about “feelings," and requiring a fixed ratio of fiction to non-fiction is just as pointless as debating the worth of Sedaris' work based on the ratio of non-fictional to fictional accounts therein. So, yes, let’s beware of the Common Core, but let’s not dismiss non-fiction along the way. Two thoughtless assertions don’t make a thoughtful one.

Some Thoughts on the (ELA) Common Core Standards

The idea of having a basic, broad set of knowledge, concepts, and skills that all Americans should learn about, while leaving plenty of room for teacher discretion and creativity and plenty of time for going deeper, resonates with me. I also would like to see American schools stop teaching reading as a subject and, beyond teaching decoding and a limited teaching of reading strategies, stop teaching it as a transferable skill. Reading strategies are not something to be studied in depth, and teaching reading as a discrete subject is tedious for students and has crowded out the teaching of many other meaty subjects such as science, social studies, the arts, foreign language, literature, and English. When I look at the ELA Common Core Standards and compare them with the ELA/Reading SOLs (Virginia Standards of Learning) for elementary students, I want to cry. I desperately want my children to do more stuff that looks like the ELA CCS, i.e., more studying content, more reading literature, and more complex writing, and a lot less of reading strategies. In substance, the CCS (at least the ELA ones--I can't speak for the math ones) look like the closest thing to good that we're going to get in standards. hat all being said, the CCS make me very nervous. 

First of all, I don’t like the idea of privatizing, centralizing and mandating standards, curricula, assessments for public schools—I think they should be created and maintained under the auspices of public democratic institutions. 

Second, I don’t like that the CCS are being forced on states or on teachers—many teachers feel this is being done to them and not with them. This is a recipe for resentment and poor implementation. How have NCLB and RTTT worked out? That’s right, not well. I'm not confident about doing such things on a grand scale, especially when they are being handed down in such detailed, prescribed, and rigidity-inducing manner. If we could have the CCS without pairing it with the current accountability structure I'd feel much differently about it. The current accountability structure corrupts almost everything that gets filtered through it. Also, yes, the logistics of financing and selling all of the materials and assessments and sorting out matters of intellectual property, all of that gives me pause given the way our economy and financial system is structured right now. I am suspicious of much that gets filtered through that, too. 

And it doesn’t help when CCS architect David Coleman’s talking points includes dismissing student writing about “feelings.” And like so many percentages in education policy (e.g., the “lowest 5% of schools” must get turned around or the “lowest 5% of teachers” must be fired because as long we’re employing certain statistical models there will ALWAYS be a lowest 5%, no matter how satisfactorily anyone is performing and there will always be students not progressing within that same continuum if they’re already performing at 90 – 100%), I find it ridiculously arbitrary that teachers will now be mandated to teach a certain ratio of texts to other texts.

Kathleen Porter-Magee talks about allowing and learning from the Common Core’s failures, about seeing what works and what doesn’t. Yes! Great idea! Let's pilot them! Ooops. The CCS are already terribly far away from any tweaking stage--they're going straight to the big time. I believe teachers when they say the CCS are being rammed down their throats and that in many cases the standards and expectations are developmentally appropriate for our younger students (again, how well has NCLB heeded developmentally appropriate practices, especially for ELLs, given what language acquisition research has shown us). The current accountability structure does not allow for failure, even healthy failure. It's premised on the idea that failure is entirely intolerable, that it is the problem.

Finally, even if we accept that the ELA CCS are superior to most states' current ELA standards, that they're more intellectual and more conducive to critical thinking (and I don't know enough to claim that they do or are), it's going to be very hard to implement them in an intellectual spirit if they're being interpreted and handed down in a decidedly rigid, anti-intellectual manner. Furthermore, if systems that are adopting them are purging the more intellectual, knowledgeable, and critically thinking teachers such as the one I discussed in this post, there won't be anyone left who has the subject knowledge and experience enough to implement them as their architects say they are to be implemented. Autocracy does not beget democracy and no matter how fit and hard working they are, good athletes won't make good soccer coaches if they know next to nothing about the game and about good coaching.

I have no horse in this race, no reason to hope the the CCS will fail, but I think my skepticism is well founded. If I'm wrong about this, I shall only be glad.

UPDATE: My next post is a follow-up to this one.