Themes for English B: A Professorís Education In and Out of Class
reviewed by Jennifer Tronti - January 30, 2008
Title: Themes for English B: A Professorís Education In and Out of Class
Author(s): J. D. Scrimgeour
Publisher: University of Georgia Press, Athens
ISBN: 0820328472, Pages: 144, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com
Like J. D. Scrimgeour, author of Themes for English B: A Professors Education In and Out of Class, I remember that my early experience as an instructor required a gradual acclimation (p. 7) to an atmosphere, not exactly foreign, but not fully native to my constitution. In an urban community college, my first writing course consisted of: one student with Tourette Syndrome, whose intermittent outbursts and discussions of his fictional work-in-progress punctuated the class period, one couple, recently divorced, who inexplicably sat next to each other during every class session, two deaf students (and their interpreter) whose academic well-being was far beyond my meager skills at that time, one outspoken former prostitute determined to write an account of her life and profession, several students who were part of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program who frequently wrote about their past lives (both legal and illegal) in their essay prompts, and a smattering of the general students to be found at any urban community collegeyoung people just out of high school, one living in her car, others blindly following their expected path, and the best writer of the bunch, a soft-spoken young man whose white tank top, baggy jeans, and prominent tattoos silently proclaimed his gang affiliations. Like Scrimgeour, I also humbly cringed before these students, uncomfortably aware of my own sense of privilege and autonomy, an inherited sense of mobility that remains stable despite any wealth or dearth of academic and economic opportunities. So few of these studentshis or mineseemed to be in possession of this independent outlook.
One of the strengths of Scrimgeours text is his humane reaction to his own environment as well as that of his students. Through deliberate reflection, he explores the intricate interrelationship between living conditions and conscious existence. In the first essay of his text, Breathing, he comments, it is as if the foul air from the looming power plant, slowly choking our children, has seeped into the students, making their livesbut not their soulshard and bitter and unhealthy (p. 4). For any criticisms that could be lodged against this text, and there are a few, what is imminently clear is that Scrimgeours ability to be honest and to be humane has not been overwhelmed by intellectual egotism or educational rigidity. His brief text, a collection of essays (some previously published and some original to this text), discloses the internal double-consciousness (p. 79), to echo Scrimgeours own citation of W. E. B. du Bois, which shadows the thoughtful professor. Scrimgeour asks, none too caustically, What to shoulder? Am I losing myself in the whirlpool of the classroom? (p. 34). This tension between the instructor who desires to do more, to touch more, to write, to create and to convey more sensibility of understanding than mere lecture can produce, and the dictates of the profession, standardized assessment, students indifference, and all, provides Themes for English B: A Professors Education In and Out of Class with a depth of heart.
At times, Scrimgeour borders upon a sentimentalization of his students and their plight. In The Swans of Charter Street, he remarks:
the distance between Chestnut Street and my familys modest house is far more than the two physical blocks. It is the distance that moved Mann to revolutionize public education, to challenge the ignorance that class prejudice fosters. And the cruelties of this distance, the abuse of power and privilege in his own ancestors, is why the city haunted its native son, Hawthorne. (p. 17)
This essay is certainly, at least in my mind, one of his strongest formal essays out of the collection. His imaginative re-creation of Salem, Massachusetts intellectuals, Horace Mann, the Peabody sisters, and Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, is vivid and personal. Under Scrimgeours pen, Mann becomes real, visceral. Nevertheless, those two blocks between Scrimgeours home and Manns is still closer and more comfortable, I assume, than that of his students own homes. Scrimgeour chose Salem. The gap of this fact alone distinguishes Scrimgeours position within Salem from his students more claustrophobic and more delimiting place within that same city.
Throughout the text, his language remains fixed in its metaphorical resonance. The same poetic sensibility which compels him to connect his approach to basketball to his approach to life, teaching, learning, and writing serves as a foundational lens by which he observes his world. First and foremost, this is less a book about the students and the university where he teaches than it is a book about his own life, his own insecurities as a student, his own failures as a professor, his own attraction to sports such as baseball or basketball which provide him with the fleeting intimacy of athletic camaraderie, and his own revelry in the painful poignancy of Langston Hughes poetry. Under the heading, Older-and White-And Somewhat More Free, Scrimgeour cites one of his own poems dedicated to Langston Hughes. Liberated from the didactic tendencies of prose, the lines of this poem stand out in stark relief. To Hughes, he quizzes,
I trust you when you say you hear
America singing, but come today
and listen, come now, today
and bury your pen in our throats
those simple, sometimes angry notes
that made your line almost true. (p. 58)
As the title which prefaces this poem denotes, we are who we are, negotiating our way through a world sometimes with us, sometime against or indifferent to us. Scrimgeours text negotiates his way with a linguistic deliberateness which insists that he is who he is; he develops his Theme for English B. He longs for more, for better. For an educational experience where that great equalizer (p. 24) of poetry, whether through the verse of Langston Hughes or the prose of Tillie Olsen, can for both student and instructor evoke a powerful, emotional, and transformative reaction.
For me, Scrimgeour did not quite bury his pen in my throat. I wish he had pushed some of his ideas further. I wish he had grappled with his anger at racial inequity and institutional monotony with more energy and less nostalgia. I wish that he had included more of his crisp, clear poetry and less of his athletic musings. But perhaps if he had pushed the tip of that metaphorical pen of truth and vision too forcefully into my throat, I may have foresworn my kinship with his material. Scrimgeours story, laid vulnerably bare in his text, is too close to my own. His empathy and attraction for what his students can bring to the study of literature and his own confusion and contention with graduate school speak to my own experiences. Perhaps the highest praise that I can give his text is that I nearly cried when he encountered his students chalkboard scrawl: Why are we even here for? (p. 86). I felt his rage, his disappointment, and his relief as if they were my own. In response Scrimgeour asks, Were our conversations simply for grades? (p. 87). His essays circle around this notion. They dart in and offer insights but never definitive answers. That is both the beauty and the lack in his text. I suppose it is not too harsh a critique to level at Professor J. D. Scrimgeour: he left me wanting to hear more.