Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Checking In

As one of my readers at this site just reminded me--not that I haven't been reminding myself more or less daily for weeks--I've been AWOL for a while. There have been things I might have blogged about, too. No Depression, the quality alt-country whose conversion into online-only I followed here last year, is no longer online-only either. It claims it's still alive, and I'm not arguing, but in apparently its life is some kind of social-networking thing that I somehow doubt will help alt-country diehards act naturally. There's also news that the quality L.A.-based dance/hip-hop mag Urb is in its death throes, which its editor denies, but not without deniability if you know what I mean. At the same time I wanted to thank all those who responded to my "Anuncios de Servicio Publico" post--responses that in toto constitute the guide to RIAA-certified Spanish-language pop I said someone should publish, so that all somebody needs to do know is compile all the knowledge, spruce up the writing a bit, and fill in a full holes and, well, publish it somewhere. Good luck.

The reason I've been AWOL is simple--I've been working an 80-90 hour week since my term teaching at NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music began January 29. As I announced here, though maybe I should start flagging the results (Google "christgau `remembrance of seasons past'" for the most recent installment), I am now the fortunate freelancer with two substantial monthly columns, the Consumer Guide at msn.com for more than two years now but now also the brand new Rock & Roll & at the Barnes & Noble Review. Since I don't just knock any writing off--though I am trying to make an exception right now--this leaves me with not much time on my hands, and when I'm teaching that time reduces to some kind if negative number, When I slept seven hours last night it was the first time I'd reached that blessed goal in weeks.

I always prep my classes hard even though this is the fifth time I've taught the always evolving but basically stable history part of the course. But what really takes the time is that I'm supposed to teach these sophomore recorded music majors, for whom my course is required, how to write at the same time. And I want to blow off a little steam about that before I try to make it two seven-hour nights in a row.

These kids are not stupid and a fair number in this particular class (it varies) have some idea how to write. What interests me, in view of those two facts, is how little their required freshman writing courses helps them develop this ability. At one point I thought I should try to get a fulltime job at NYU myself and was offered a freshman writing course as part of the package. The deal was that I would lecture my students on whatever I wanted and TA's would mark the papers I would assign. I know people who've taught this way and some of them tell me it works pretty well, but I don't believe it. I've read a fair amount of writing by people of TA status--which is to say talented graduate students with an active interest in cultural matters, often from a cultural studies perspective--and most of it isn't that good. Moreover, as anyone who'd worked with dozens of editors knows, the ability to write (which most editors in journalism can claim) is not the same thing as the ability show other people how to do it.

So here's how I teach my 29 sophomores. Three papers constitute 55 percent of the course grade--5, 15, and 35. Each of the first two papers is written three times. The first one is 300 words and graded only on the final draft, the second 750 words and graded on each draft, the third 2500 words handed in the final day of the term and written only once (although I offer guidance to those who get a sufficiently early start). Each of the first two papers gets a complete pencil edit from me (yes, that's literal, I use pencil). I deal when necessary with overall construction, with theme and general coherence, but I also challenge word choice, series order, sentence structure, damn right punctuation. I lay some Strunk & White on them as well as my own theories about hierarchies of verbs and Latinate as opposed to Anglo-Saxon diction. It's very time-consuming. Most of them tell me nobody, including those TA's, has ever told them about such stuff before. The lesson for arts journalism at any level of monetary compensation should be clear, though how one locates much less pays 100,000 competent line editors beats me.

Did I talk about :"who"/"whom" versus "that"? Maybe I can devote a post to just that. But there's also a book I'd like to tell you about.

4 Comments

By Dean Jones on March 18, 2009 11:53 PM

The vigorous and enterprising nature of your various professions/hobbies must require some degree of selflessness, lack of sleep and all. Maybe that's why your students weren't ever told about word choice, or series order, or sentence structure, or damn right punctuation. Maybe their other teachers weren't as concerned with journalism itself as an active and artistic habit.

By David Schweitzer on March 22, 2009 6:46 PM

I took that NYU freshman writing course myself 24 years ago. Certainly the first time I'd ever had direct attention to my writing, and it got me thinking more about it, though I don't recall applying the specific skills you describe (though it has been 24 years). The TA's were certainly more personable than most of my professors, too, though it helped that the class size was around 15, whereas most courses freshman had access to were on the arena scale by comparison. Got more insight into the process when my future wife was a Ph.D candidate at the University of Pittsburgh in the early '90s. Pitt's English department had a big rep for theory, and they were also out to take Composition seriously. What I mostly recall about that is that most of the grad students assigned to teaching Comp resented having to do it, and many thought it should be its own department, entirely separate from Lit. (My wife didn't resent it, only found that learning how to teach Comp, and teaching it, took a lot out of her time for her other work, the work she'd gone to Pitt for (where have I heard something like that recently?). On the other hand, she's now a high school English teacher, not a Ph. D, and of course all that Comp turned out to help a fair amount.)

So teaching writing is a) unusually time-consuming and b) often, if not generally, taught by people who want to be doing something else, not only because it's time-consuming. If this is how the TA's you describe learned to write as undergrads, there you have it.

Me? I probably learned more about writing by reading Consumer Guide, which I mean matter-of-factly, not as flattery, because it's writing I'm pretty sure every teacher I ever had would disapprove of.

By Robert Christgau on March 30, 2009 7:54 AM

While very grateful for Dean Jones's compliment, I would just like to say that I've met few if any selfless people in my life and have more than once noted apparent selflessness flipping over into resentment and rage. I'm far from selfless. In fact, I don't think I've ever met a writer who came close. Making your words public is an act of ego pretty much by definition. Generosity, now--there's a more reliable virtue.

By Dean Jones on March 30, 2009 11:17 AM

I'm not so sure. Yet I'm sure you benefit as much as your readers on 'Articles,' if not more (perhaps by keeping compositional instincts in check). But what about your music reviews? Aren't they objective and not self-glorifying? Also, note that my comment reads, to 'some degree of selflessness'

Looking forward to this month's 'Consumer Guide.'

Articles, Mar. 18, 2009


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