Category Archives: Pedagogy

The syllabus I can’t give you.

Inspired by Sonya Huber’s (2014) Shadow Syllabus, written as a free-writing exercise for myself, with an eye to adapting it for use in my writing courses.

  • This is your map for getting an A. You’re the driver, and I call shotgun, making me your navigator. I’ll tell you exactly how to get to where you’re going, but over the lulling hum of your engine, you might have difficulty hearing me.
  • You are guaranteed to get lost.
  • When I was in college, I was always lost. When I reached grad school, I realized being lost is a luxury you will one day lose.
  • There’s this ancient Greek myth, maybe you’ve heard of it, of a hound destined to always catch its prey and a fox destined to never be caught. The paradox of their mutually excluding abilities annoyed Zeus into turning them both into stone, and then into stars, where they continue this fruitless pursuit.
  • I’m sure I bookmarked this reference, so now of course it’s gone, which is a lesson in saving your sources with a citation manager, now.
  • Those who strive for As usually don’t get them, and those who abandon the hunt, in favor of seeking knowledge, of seeing how deep an empty foxhole goes, usually do.
  • You will think it’s easy for me to say this. I don’t have scholarships riding on this. I don’t have families, histories, homes to extend or transcend. But I did, once.
  • “You never had control,” shouts Dr. Ellie Sattler. “That’s the illusion!”
  • Also, that’s the syllabus genre, which is why I’m always, resentfully, retooling mine.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , ,

Salting the earth with hypocrisy.

It’s the last week of classes, and my course announcements, as usual, have stacked up like this:

Hey class,
Due to travel hazards/laryngitis/an ongoing family emergency/my sick cat, I will be unable to attend class today. As such, I will record a lecture in advance of our meeting time and hang out in the chat room during class to field any questions you might have about the material. As always, you can email me directly with comments.
Prof. Mani

Also featured are stories of delays: #NJTransit and #PennStation have trended at least twice this month due to massive breakdowns, delays, and crowd control issues. After a NJTransit train derailed on Monday, April 3, damaging switches and rails, train delays and cancellations, platform crowding, and overflow trains infected the entire week, including the Tuesday and Thursday I commute to Rutgers for a 2:2 course load. At Penn Station, Amtrak, LIRR, and NJTransit were all affected. According to news reports and angry commuters on Twitter, the less crowded Penn Station’s platforms and trains looked like this:


That’s hours of delays, jostling shoulder to shoulder on the platform, followed by a standing-room only commute for an hour on the Northeast Corridor.

Thousands of commuters were doing this, so I couldn’t say it wasn’t doable. But I didn’t do it. I cancelled my Rutgers classes that week, citing only my concerns that I wouldn’t arrive on time, and we wouldn’t be able to hold class anyway.

This was true, but it wasn’t the real reason.

Coincidentally, after I returned to campus I heard from a former student that I have a reputation for canceling, and I’ve been trying to dismiss my concerns about it because I’m not sure I get to be defensive. Like a good faculty member, I am dishonest with my students about my reasons, despite insisting they be honest with me about theirs. I lie because, as long as I can power through without dying mid-lecture, the truth sounds like an excuse. I’m in pain. I’m exhausted. I just can’t.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , ,

In Which I Become the Body in the Classroom. Literally.

In any city, in any country, in any university in which you have been enrolled, go into any classroom and silently say, I seek the Holder of the A. If when you open your eyes a professor stands at the lectern, then you have failed, class will proceed as normal, and your journey ends here. But if when you enter you are greeted by a prostrate woman, eyes-open and non-responsive, then quickly assemble in groups of five or else prepare for a horrific end. The mind is more fragile than you know, and there are worse things than death.

If you seek the Object clenched in the body’s hand, you must tell the corpse its own story: the myth of the Holder of the A.

Do not forget as you write, this is no myth. Do not touch the Holder or attempt to take the Object by force. If you do either, or if you fail to reinvent her in the allotted time, she will stay dead and you will be forever destined to fail no matter the task you undertake. Succeed, and the corpse will awaken, and offer you a crumpled, bloodstained note promising intellectual supremacy.

The note is Object 537 of 538. If you can attain it, success is yours.

If, like me, you lurked or participated on 4chan’s /b/ or /x/, you may be familiar with the generic conventions in the short prose piece above. It mimics the style of the Holders Series, a collection of creepypasta chronicling the tasks of reckless, curious individuals seeking to collect mystical objects that should never come together. In the vein of open-source fiction, the individual stories in the Holders series lack attribution and the mythos is collaboratively, transparently constructed based on communal negotiations concerning the generic conventions of horror and expectations for the story itself. The mythos is unstable, unfixed, and thus can be continually modified and augmented. As a case in point, while the first Holders story states there are 538 Objects, stories exist after #538, telling the story of Objects 539 of 538, 540 of 538, etc., and a sequel series, Legion’s Objects, was started to chronicle an additional 2000 Objects.

I wrote the piece quoted above as part of an experimental class on open-source fiction, fandom, and amateur production online. I did this exercise in a media studies course, but I think it would work equally well, or better, in a composition or creative writing classroom. More after the jump if you’re interested in replicating the exercise or just want to hear how it went. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

For Every Student Who Ever Has to Complete an Analytical Writing Assignment

Only not really because that would just be a blanket generalization, now wouldn’t it?

Tongue-in-cheek remarks aside, I finally decided to try to shortcut an answer to the questions that come pouring in right before the first analytical paper assignment, regardless of the course subject: What’s a theoretical concept again? How am I supposed to use it? What do you mean, “apply”?

My use of “the lens” dates back to my teacher training in Columbia University’s Undergraduate Writing Program, and it was a confusing concept for students then and it’s still confusing now. Since today was a snow day and I like procrastinating, I decided to take a stab at a video explanation of what a lens is and how to use it.

The materials I used were a notepad, a pencil, a strip cut out of a transparency sheet, and a Batman plushie. Hopefully that was enough. I think one slide may have been out of order but still, you get the idea.

Tagged , , , , ,

In which I reflect on Fall 2014 and ASP 2014.

The effects of airplane turbulence aside, I’m feeling more like myself and realizing how much I’ve been meaning to write about. The surreal nature of being classified in the ER. The progressively decreased emphasis on quality of work in favor of quantity of interpersonal drama on Inkmaster. Something about Crossed‘s Cindy or Crossed: Family Values‘ Adaline and/or her Mom for a CFP. And, for months now, my recent experience teaching first-year writing in Columbia’s summer bridge program for the second time, as it has kept me afloat through a rocky semester of teaching in which I had to power through the pain and fog of recovery in order to make money to survive, and simultaneously ignore the nagging feeling that, maybe, I shouldn’t have had to.

Mark Strand once wrote: “We all have reasons for moving./I move to keep things whole.”

As I faced the pale shadow of myself, floundering in my work load and trying to find my way back to the teacher I knew I used to be, the memory of ASP 2014 sustained me. As professors we talk warmly about students “getting it,” and I knew, whatever my pedagogical lapses as I recovered, I had helped those students “get it” and, as dark as my map had become, that was a place my teaching could return to.

Continue reading

Tagged , , ,

NYT Room for Debate: Uncut

I published a solicited opinion piece in The New York Times Room for Debate in response to questions about Internet trolls, anonymity, and 4chan. The word limit was 300. Of course I initially submitted something more like 400, which was then cut down to 300-ish, but I was asked to write more to clarify and not worry about the word count. So of course I ended up with 800-ish words. The top editors then cut it down to 230, and after some back-and-forth with the editor who had solicited me (and who worked hard to preserve the integrity of the original), we settled on a version that was 311 words, that didn’t alter factual meaning, that retained the gist of the earlier drafts, and that still seemed to contribute substantively to the discussion.

As a side note, I find it both flattering and terrifying to have my headshot and bio alongside greats like Gabriella Coleman, Whitney Phillips, and others whose work I frequently cite in my own scholarship. It’s one of those “Have I arrived? No, probably not” moments where I’m straddling others’ assumptions about my expertise in, well, anything, and my own infamous self-deprecatory and cautious sense that I will never be expert in anything because expertise is unachievable. There’s always something more to observe and know.

I’ve worked with editors before on both creative and scholarly publications, but never a mass media outlet, and the differences are striking. I’m blessed to have only had to revise and resubmit a scholarly article twice, once just to make the material more accessible to a layman audience, the other time an overhaul of a couple of sections. Both times, even where sections were slashed to the bone or sentences were ghostwritten as an example of what they wanted me to do, the editors were careful in their use of language to leave my original meaning intact. With regards to creative work, my edits tend to be few and have thus far boiled down to negotiations over a handful of words. We’re talking a back-and-forth for ten emails to figure out a more accurate word than “screaming.” There was a deep respect for what I had already produced.

I’m good with fast turnaround–I had about a day after being solicited to draft the Times Room for Debate piece–but the edits initially threw me into panic mode. I’m lucky to have been solicited by an editor who cared about preserving the meaning and factual accuracy of the piece, albeit within the limitations imposed on her from above, because the round of edits from Above (capital A) not only stripped sentences of accuracy, purportedly in the interest of accessibility, but also were grammatically incorrect. (I believe there’s still a pronoun without an antecedent in the final copy.) Maybe it’s because I’m a writer/editor and I’ve developed a particularly obsessive eye for fine details, but in a few minutes my agent and myself figured out what from the old draft needed to be retained

I’m posting the old draft after the jump, for multiple reasons and readers. For readers of the Room for Debate piece who might find their way here by clicking on links in my Rutgers profile. For former students who stalk me online, and possibly for future students, because there is a teaching moment embedded here in the transformation across drafts: namely, this is what radical revision looks like, and your professors have to face it too. And to assuage my own feelings of having ever-so-slightly sold out, although the published piece is something I can live with (and had I not been able to live with it, I was prepared to rescind it).

So, without further ado:

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , ,

“World Go Boom”

Prior to diving into the murky waters of my qualifying exam period, I thought I would share the lesson plan I used during a mock class tailored to a portfolio assignment. As I hadn’t seen the instructor’s syllabus, I planned a lesson around conceptualizing the portfolio as a material artifact whose message could be manipulated through organization on the small and large scales. I had 40-45 minutes for the lesson, so the plan itself crams a lot more in than I necessarily got to. Still, the gist of it was that I used a mashup video to provide a conceptual foundation for thinking through the arrangement and narrative arc of the final portfolio.

The video can be found here. The full lesson can be found here. Feel free to use wholesale or adapt (attribution appreciated).

Tagged , ,

Where we come from.

We come from South Asia; Long Island; Charlottesville, Virginia; Hammond, Louisiana; Springfield, Missouri; Hanover, New Hampshire; New York, New York.  We are English B.A.’s and Fiction M.F.A.’s.  We are Ivy League educated, for what that’s worth.  We teach in Washington Heights.  Harlem.  Morningside.  Soho.  New Jersey.  Brooklyn.  We teach ESL writing, creative writing, professional writing, college writing.  Forget our own writing.  We have taught for seven years.  We teach K-12.  We teach college.  We volunteer.  We get paid.  We gripe.  We call this rewarding.

We are armchair academics in the comfiest of armchairs.  We come from near-perfect grades and test scores, academic parents, science backgrounds, art backgrounds, the pressure to be well-rounded which is what we bring to our classrooms.  We come from the world: television, movies, comics, video games, anime, Saturday morning cartoons, music, music videos, teh Internets and the electronic apocalypse.  We expect a robot rebellion by 2050 at the latest.  We philosophize about it in the meantime.  We’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t happen while we’re alive.

We teach halftime as adjunct faculty and part-time as a tutor at a New York nonprofit.  We love children.  We hate children.  We do our song-and-dance routine and wait for them to get it, for the glow of our reward.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

Tagged , , , ,

What’s on tap.

If I may speak for us Composition & Rhetoric adjuncts, we read.  A lot.  And not all of it’s student papers.  If nothing else we read what we assign, because, well, we have to.  And we list our readings for your perusal, because, well, coming up with a reading list solo is hard.

We read literature.  Margaret Atwood, Jamaica Kincaid, T.S. Eliot, Zbigniew Herbert, Sylvia Plath, Angela Carter, Ursula LeGuin, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, Andre Dubus.  Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Burning Chrome, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son, Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Julio Cortazar’s Cronopios y Famas, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Iniquity, Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Saturday Night at the Pahala Theater, Junot Diaz’s Drown, Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies and Invisible Cities and Cosmicomics (we love his versatility in the classroom).  We read graphic novels because they belong in the canon too: Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.  Lucifer, Bone, Bottomless Belly Button.  Jimmy Corrigan.  The Sinister Truth.

We read from Dennis Cooper to Garcia Marquez; we love His Dark Materials, Lloyd Alexander, anything Atwood; we read journalist perspectives on countries stricken with war and ethnic conflict and the places where art and trauma intersect: Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats, Anita Pratap’s Island of Blood, Lasantha Wickrematunga’s “And Then They Came for Me,” Greg Marinovich’s The Bang-Bang Club, Ben Okri’s Stars of the New Curfew, Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost.  We read manga: Death NoteFullmetal AlchemistTengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.  We indulge our grown-up angst and our inner twelve-year-old boy.  We believe that good writing emerges from good reading.  We change our readings every other year, to prevent ourselves from getting comfortable in our old age with the same old things, because our students keep growing and experiencing the world anew, and if we allow it we—and our reading lists—will fast become outdated.

We read essays.  From Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture, Sherry Turkle’s Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Jessica Hagedorn’s Danger and Beauty, Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.  Douglas Wolk, Jamaica Kincaid, Jonathan Lethem, Martha Nussbaum, Michel Foucault.  Vivian Gornick’s “On the Street,”Ann duCille’s “Dyes and Dolls,” Robert Scholes’s “On Reading a Video Text,” Marguerite Helmers’s “Media, Discourse, and the Public Sphere,” Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace,” Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” Carol Clover’s “Gender in the Slasher Film,” Slavoj Zizek, “The Desert of the Real.”  Picture Morpheus in his armchair and mirror-shades, gesturing to Neo as he speaks that phrase, the sky boiled by thunderclouds, lightning.  That’s the force we want in our essays.  That power.  That ability to fascinate and engage.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

Tagged , , , ,

Composition & Rhetoric: A List.

1.  Pre-semester, we lesson plan.  We outline course policies, syllabuses, calendars.  This involves figuring out what readings we’re going to use, when we’re going to assign them, what assignments we’re going to pair them with.  Forget about approaching this linearly.  This is holistic creation or bust.

2.  I believe in transparency.  Triangulation.  Collaboration.  Anything that strikes the beat of idealistic manifesto.

3.  I spend most of the year brainstorming assignments in the back of my mind.  Make notes.  Fill thin unlined Muji notebooks cover to cover with diagrams, handwritten handouts, assignments & caveats.  I avoid using the questions in the textbook if I’m required to use one.  By August I start by picking my readings.  Sometimes this involves reading the whole textbook.  Often it involves re-reading several stories, trying to compile them in five coherent units.  Then, question time.  Should I theme each unit around the theme of the essays or stories?  Or should I theme each around a particular rhetorical skill?  What rhetorical skills do I want to focus on?  What rhetorical skills are modeled by the readings?  I try to find answers.  I organize essays into units by rhetorical skill, literature by theme.   I organize units so that skills build on one another and culminate in a project that encompasses them all.

4.  You know what a class calendar looks like.  They look easy.  They aren’t.

5.  Calendars consist of readings, activities for the day, assignments due that day.  Once I’ve organized my readings, I invent or reimagine assignments that work with the readings.  These are reflections.  Distillations.  Reader responses.  Creative assignments.  Close-readings.  Mock arguments.  Anything students can potentially use in their papers.  Anything to familiarize them with this kind of legwork.  Because if they get to drafting without knowing it, boy are you screwed.

6.  There are three drafts in an essay progression.  Turn-around for comments is about a week between each.  This means that once you receive the first set of drafts, you’ll be grading every week until the semester ends.  Plan accordingly.

7.  Protip #1: Weekends are safe.  Under no circumstances should you allow drafts to fall in the middle of the week.  You will kill yourself.  I should know.

8.  Have all materials to the department before the deadline.  Me, I’m lucky if I submit it the day it’s due.  Then again, I enjoy killing myself, if my procrastination track record is any indication.

9.  During the semester, we teach, revise, and improvise.  Lesson plans are more like guidelines.  Sometimes we should stick to them.  Sometimes, in the face of a class that’s dead or unprepared, we have to deviate.  This has screwed me on faculty review before.  Now I arm myself with a notebook full of back-up exercises, random topics, free-writes, creative topics.  I talk about cyberculture, weird fetishes on the Internet, pro-anorexia, fanfiction and fan culture, 4chan, Twitter, Facebook, Something Awful goons.  I talk about television.  Cartoons.  Video games.

10. Protip #2: Stay abreast of current pop culture.  It will save you when nothing else can.

11. Protip #3: Cannibalism and the apocalypse, as a rule, will always supply an impetus to write.

12. I just realized I didn’t actually look at a single lesson plan all semester, even though I spent weeks outlining in August.  Instead, I rewrote them all the night before class, solidifying my discussion questions regarding the readings, trying to anticipate stumbling blocks.  Students aren’t as predictable as we’d like them to be.

13. Cases in point: students who vehemently believe that soldiers should blindly obey orders, even so far as killing civilians; students who call Islam “monstrous”; students who think the word “fag” is okay, who think that poor, predominantly black/Hispanic urban communities have “brought it on themselves,” who think that women who walk alone at night are “asking for it,” who don’t notice the frigid silence in the room when they announce these beliefs.

14. In class we are performers.  We have to control our facial expressions to a tee.  That means modulating your voice when you say, “That’s really interesting” without really meaning it.  It means always having something positive to say to encourage discussion and make the environment safe.  It means laying down the law when bullying happens.  It means being okay with abandoning a lesson plan to try to ensure your students can think intelligently about issues from racism to sexism to sexuality to genocide.  These are the things they will take from your class, even if they leave without knowing how to write.

15. Protip #4: You can only reach so many of them, i.e., you can’t save them all.

16. Students are humans too.  They’re young.  You can gripe and moan about their behavior but remember, they haven’t been to college yet, and it’s our job to introduce them to college writing.  You can’t expect them to know anything beyond the 5-paragraph model.  They don’t know lenses, or how to unpack terms.  They’re babies.  We keep getting older, but year after year, they stay the same age.

17. If you can’t model an assignment for them impromptu, it isn’t fair to ask them to do it.

18. We are observed.  Usually once a semester.  Sometimes twice.  It doesn’t matter how many times observers say, “Just do what you planned to do”; the class session inevitably devolves into a dog and pony show.  Your future at the institution depends on this class.  You should be experimental, but not too experimental; ask the right questions; don’t be too leading; foster discussion even if students are bored/tired/unprepared/disengaged.  Anything can screw you.  I’ve heard horror stories of observers who fell asleep in the session they were observing.  If the students like you, they’ll perform well.  If not…well.  Try extra, extra hard.

19. The game is rigged anyway.  The whole point is criticism.  You will never do perfectly, however well you do, however much they like you.  It’s subjective.  They are allowed to say what they would have liked to see, even if it has no bearing on the lesson at hand or took place earlier in the week.

20. Student evaluations are awesome.  If your students like you.

21. We grade.  We grade, grade, grade, grade, grade.  Reading for pleasure?  Try staring at comma splices and fragments and unnecessary quotation marks for days on end.  I promise you, you’ll be crying blood by the time you’re done.

22. There is a silver lining: some students try.  Some improve.  Some end up having visibly mastered writing.

23. Faculty commitments: meetings, grade norming sessions, the occasional party.  Since the economy dropped, you can say goodbye to the free food.  Prepare to be hungry.

24. Furlough days have increased.  This means you work a few hours for free.  At approximately $75/hr on salary, and few contact hours a week, this ends up being a lot.

25. Before you think we’re lucky to make that much, consider the fact that we a) have roughly 6 contact hours a week, b) office hours and meetings are unpaid, c) grading and commenting on a set of essays takes a full 24 hours, unpaid, d) we have grading and commenting in addition to essays.  Suddenly it doesn’t seem fair, does it?

26. Post-semester, we grade.  Final papers.  Final portfolios.  We drink a lot.  Snatch a day to see people we haven’t seen all year.  Buckle down and read, comment, evaluate, assign and submit grades.  We deal with students who contest the grades.  We keep careful notes about participation.  We use rubrics for ourselves, even if we don’t use them in class.  We cover our asses.  We sleep for days after classes end.  We wake up.  We prep for our summer jobs—adjuncting for crash courses, usually—and come full-circle, back to pre-semester, when we lesson plan, outline course policies, syllabuses, calendars, figure out what to read, what to do, what to do with our lives.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

Tagged , , , ,