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Mortality and Writing Pedagogy

By Durba Chattaraj

Consider the main argument of the piece. Weigh, carefully, reasons and evidence. Consider counterarguments. Scour the page for logical fallacies. Hone your ability to reason. But depending on genre, on audience, on intention, leave place for the poetic, the excessive, and the unreasonable.

In my fifth year of teaching the above – of teaching undergraduate writing and critical thinking seminars at the University of Pennsylvania – I had to apply all of the above, with deadly precision, not to my academic writing, not to the peer-reviewed journal articles languishing on my desktop, but to my own neck. In 2015, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I was 35-years-old.

It emerged that for this condition, as for the human condition more generally, there was no one way to act. There is no universally accepted standard of care when it comes to papillary carcinomas. Even within the medical community, there are debates, and raging ones, about what a person who receives such a diagnosis should do. While my doctors recommended the surgical removal of the thyroid, right around the time I was weighing my choices, Atul Gawande, doctor, researcher, and wordsmith extraordinaire, published a persuasive piece in the New Yorker arguing that an “avalanche” of unnecessary medical procedures was harming patients, who were being advised to go in for potentially damaging un-required surgeries. In this article he focused considerable attention on thyroid cancer as a case in point.

Evocative writing aimed a general audience can persuade far more than the dry prose of peer-reviewed medical research, and I was sure I was going to go with Gawande, but then there was a further development in my case. After much thought I decided to have the surgery, and gave up my butterfly-shaped thyroid, first one wing, and then the other, to an extraordinarily skilled surgeon, in a hospital perched high up on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

Less than a month after that second surgery in Philadelphia, I began work on setting up academic writing programs at Ashoka University, a new private liberal arts university in Delhi-NCR, India.

Many cancer survivors speak of how their experience with the illness violates a certain sense of bodily integrity – the feeling that, absent of evidence to the contrary, one’s body is basically alright. After a cancer diagnosis the body turns treacherous, capable of incubating all manner of things at any moment. Capable of manufacturing deadly internal mutations, for what seems to be no good reason, even as the mind has little awareness of what is unfolding within. What emerges, from this gap between the ever-potential treachery of the body, and the inability of the mind to comprehend it, is a sharp sense of mortality, even among the survivors and the cured.

And I am one of the cured. I am hypothyroid for life, but because papillary carcinomas are tightly contained within the thyroid, after surgical removal patients are widely considered to be cancer-free. This has led to thyroid cancer often being referred to as the good cancer, somewhat foolishly, for there is really no such thing. An experience such as this one alters the course of one’s life indelibly, and there has been barely a day since my surgeries that I have not thought, in some way, about death.

These thoughts, sometimes horrific, sometimes humorous, sometimes painful, sometimes banal, have not made me retreat from life. Instead, this relatively early and intense contact with mortality has put into sharp relief for me the question: what is worth doing?

In the four years that have passed since my surgery, the answer has been a fairly mixed bag. I’m no valiant thrill-seeking warrior, primed every day for new adventure, living each day like it is my last. I have not bungee jumped. There is still time for wasting on the internet (qayamat se qayamat tak, it seems, there will be time for wasting on the internet). Time with friends and family has become more precious. But when it comes to work, as an academic trained in both anthropology and writing pedagogy, I find my priorities have changed.

Since my diagnosis I feel as if I have two calculators within me. There’s the one where I do the mental maths that every junior academic does: how many articles; what might get me tenure; what might not; what conferences to go to; who to meet and where. But for me there’s another calculation that now takes precedence – a mortal maths if you will – one that makes me yearn to connect most significantly to that which long predates me, and to that which will continue long after I am gone.

This desire for transcendence has led me to greatly value two things that have been widely acknowledged to have been systematically devalued in academia in the West – teaching and mentorship. The work that I have done since moving to India on building writing programs and writing education in the country allows me to centre on teaching and mentorship in a higher education scenario where the structured teaching of writing and critical thinking could not be more important.

Sometimes teaching writing is seen as the grunt work that only those low on the academic totem pole should do. Well, it is in this very grunt work that I have found transcendence. Working, slowly, with students, pouring over multiple drafts of papers, guiding them, as I wish I myself had been guided, through a process of reasoning, and encouraging them to aim for original and persuasive argumentation links both of us to traditions that go back thousands of years. And that if we are lucky, will go forward at least the same number as well. One could argue that this is an invented tradition, a post-Enlightenment Western attempt to create an ancient Greco-Roman inheritance for enlightenment ideals. Perhaps it is, but then as my other discipline has shown, many traditions are.

Invented or not, the argumentative tradition, whether oral or written, is a shared inheritance, and is the sole provenance of neither East nor West. The attempt to persuade, rather than coerce, one another, is a profound space from which we experience what it is to be human. But the art of persuasion, so important to post-enlightenment scholarship and pedagogy for elites in the West, was deliberately left out of pedagogical practice in India. As Lord Macaulay’s enduring legacy, we received a truncated tradition from the West, even as we were truncated from traditions that were ours, to find ourselves in a situation where many of us were separated from reasoning itself in formal classroom environments. What Macaulay attempted to ensure was that new generations of Indians would not receive the structured training required to write a minute that would ever grow as fabled or famed as his own.

Thankfully, in this endeavour he failed. But the legacy of his dream of eternal mimicry continues, as we continue to trade critical thinking for exam warfare in our schools; as we continue to focus on memorisation rather than reasoning and argumentation in our classrooms, held prisoner by the rigidity of centralised syllabi that are in turn keyed to centralised examinations. Let us examine those examinations, by looking at the questions set within them in the social sciences and humanities, and putting these in conversation with Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Developed by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom in 1956, Bloom’s Taxonomy is an internationally-recognised hierarchical ordering of learning outcomes. This Taxonomy can be used by teachers to consciously craft assignments that develop a wide range of cognitive abilities in students. For example, questions that test for knowledge, which is for Bloom a lower-order cognitive ability, merely ask students to “remember previously learned information.” Those that test for synthesis, a higher-order ability, require students to be able to “compile component ideas into a new whole.”

Putting Bloom in conversation with the Board Exam, it becomes clear that far too many questions are structured around the imitative base of Bloom’s pyramid, rather than reaching upwards towards its creative and synthetic apex. Structured academic writing instruction in India disrupts this balance; assignments can be and are creatively crafted to push for invention and synthesis even at very introductory levels. Crafting and reading such assignments – where students imagine art installations that respond to conditions of contemporary globalisation, rather than merely repeating what a scholar has said about it; where students learn to summarise complex argumentation in very few words through creating hip-hop verse; where students learn the pleasures of reading, writing and thinking in concert with one another other – I find that being part of such a process is most definitely worth doing.

And teaching others how to do this, as I myself was taught, through acts of program-building, curriculum creation, and intensive mentorship, is perhaps even more worth doing. In the ten years that I have spent teaching academic writing, I have found writing programs to be places where people share resources, collaborate across disciplines, and mentor colleagues with a generosity of spirit and a broader public intent. But many have written about how within academia this type of intensive mentorship can be a thankless job, and is an often feminized and unrecognised form of emotional as well as intellectual labor. The years I have spent building a writing program in India have shown me, unfortunately, that there is a measure of truth to the above. From a mental-maths-for-tenure perspective perhaps this type of mentorship, teaching colleagues to teach academic writing – a field as yet not formally recognised in India – may seem like foolishness. And indeed, more should be done to ensure that both teaching and deep mentorship are re-valued in academia. But from a mortal-maths point of view, it is perhaps the most important step towards the type of transcendence described above.

If you are more aware than many that you are dying each day – because of a brush with serious illness or otherwise – it makes sense to ensure that what you have learnt continues to live on, and is improved upon by those you have been privileged to work with. Indeed, this type of work can seem much more sensible than reworking that article yet again, the one you’ve already revised more times than Tolstoy revised Anna Karenina (and you know it is no Anna Karenina), in order for it to eventually be read by 3.214 people, and not even your mother.

You could say that mortality made me want to go wide as an academic, where I had been trained to be narrow. In this, I was fortunate to already be working in the field of writing pedagogy when I received my sad diagnosis, for writing pedagogy at its core is about extending the means of persuasion to people of many persuasions. In its vision at least, it is an expansive and inclusive field of study and practise, one that I, as an anthropologist have been privileged to have become part of.

I sit with a student, looking at the final draft of a paper that has been on a long journey. The first draft was written in faltering English, a language in which the student did not have the fluency to express that which they wanted to express. The second draft was written in Hindi, the student’s mother tongue. But writing draft two was still an uphill task for them, as they had never written an original essay in the social sciences in Hindi. The final draft involved translating the Hindi essay back into lucid English, the English itself less important than the student learning how to express themselves in either language of their choosing. Reading that final draft, I feel a sense of good, old-fashioned, teacherly joy, joy that keeps death and its friends at bay. If this is grunt work, I’ll take it. I’ll teach it. I’ll share it.

In words that have always resonated with me, towards the end of his novel The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk writes, “Because nothing is as surprising as life. Except for writing. Except for writing. Yes, of course, except for writing, the only consolation.”

For me, teaching writing, the only consolation.

Image: “Butterfly Shaped Thyroid” by Durba Chattaraj

Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are the author’s own.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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