Debt, Obligation, and Forgiveness: A First-Year Composition Syllabus

Awhile ago a kind stranger on Twitter asked whether I planned on posting the syllabus for my first-year comp class. (I had been tweet-bragging about getting the damn thing finished, as one does, and geeking out about the writers I planned to teach, as I do.) I’ve been wanting to write more about teaching anyway, because it’s something that takes up a lot of my intellectual and emotional energy. So I’ll probably be doing that this semester, and I thought I’d start by honoring that stranger’s request.

A few preliminaries. I’m an instructor at University of Michigan. I’ve been here a year. Before that I taught at North Carolina Central University, the nation’s oldest public HBCU, for two and a half years, and before that I taught my way through grad school. I teach bread-and-butter first-year writing courses. University of Michigan allows instructors of these courses considerable leeway in choosing themes for their individual classes; as long as you assign certain amounts of reading and writing, and honor certain program-wide goals and regulations, you can do, say, a whole course on literary structure (which I’ve done), a whole course on orality and the epic (which I did last spring and will do again), etc.

Early this summer I was reading a lot about money and debt, and at the same time I was reading a fair amount of political journalism about student debt—an issue that will surely dog my students’ footsteps from here on out. I found that a syllabus was sort of throwing itself together in my mind. Once I broadened the idea of “debt” to include metaphysical obligations, or obligations to oneself—which the early chapters of David Graeber’s Debt helped me to do—I found that I had a pretext for teaching all sorts of pieces of writing that had, for a long time, hung together in my mind in that spiritual folder marked “Teach This Sometime.” And because the problems of obligation and debt tend to pose themselves sharply, again and again, in every generation, it wouldn’t be hard to mix contemporary with classic writings, as I prefer to do. (I want my students to join me in Borges’s library. And I want them to know that the acquisitions department never closes.)

I don’t give links here, or in my syllabus, for most of the essays. I went through a copyshop and ordered a reader, because it was important to me that the writers of these essays get some royalties. Also, this isn’t the full syllabus; the details of assignments are left out (for being boring), though some of that may come up in future posts.

First Week:
Freddie DeBoer, “Boy, I Wonder Why College is So Expensive.” During this week I also direct students to the Occupy Student Debt Fact Sheet and have them write a short essay adjudicating OSD’s use of its own sources.

The idea here is to raise the issue of student debt as something other than a metaphysical fact of life. DeBoer points out several possible causes, including the ridiculously ostentatious gym buildings with which schools attract the children of the wealthy. OSD makes a fairly standard left-wing analysis of the causes, but I want students to get in a habit of checking the references: do the links OSD uses say what OSD insists they say? 

Second Week:
Reading: Matt Taibbi, “Ripping Off Young America”; Tressie McMillan Cottom, “The University and the Company Man”; Maureen Tkacik, “The Unconstitutional Forty-Year War on Students”

This comes with a fairly standard summarize-the-disputants’ cases assignment: I want students to get in the habit of fairly and accurately restating sophisticated arguments long before the first paper is due. I think all three writers, particularly Tkacik and McMillan Cottom, are brilliant expository prose stylists, and I plan some classroom activities that focus on breaking down some of their moves.

Also, I just love all these pieces. Tressie’s one of my best friends, so I don’t pretend to neutrality here. But then, I don’t pretend to neutrality anywhere.

Third and Fourth Week:
They have a paper coming up here—a causal argument about the recent student debt boom. These weeks’ activities have to do with basic research practice, evaluating sources, getting a varied info-diet, reffing between competing claims. Then peer review and conferences, and the first unit is done. 

Fifth and Sixth Week:
Mary Midgley, “Duties Concerning Islands”; Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

If the first unit tries to show that it’s not so obvious what we mean when we say we “owe” X dollars to the bank, the second unit opens up what we mean when we say “You owe it to yourself to … [stop drinking; see Guardians of the Galaxy; accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior; take a lover; floss more]. Why does Rilke’s great poem end “You must change your life”? Why would the experience of the sublime pry open a person’s conscience like that? And then, once we’re done owing things to ourselves, what about our debts to animals, society, God, strangers? There’s also a mini-paper this week about duties to ourselves, followed by an exchange-and-response assignment: students read each others’ mini-papers, isolate a single argument, and address themselves to it in some way, agreeing, disagreeing, ramifying.

Seventh through Ninth Weeks:
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

I haven’t read Solomon since 2006, but I was certainly amazed by it at the time. And it’s a novel that raises questions of debt and obligation continuously—once you start looking, they’re everywhere. What is the Seven Days but a cold, straightforward attempt at ethical accounting, at rebalancing the books? What is Milkman Dead’s major problem, if it’s not his failure to fully appreciate and respect the fact that he is a derived being, the product of others’ sacrifices and love, to which he so often responds coldly? And there’s Pilate’s speech to him about what he owes Hagar’s memory and … it just goes on and on. The students’ second major paper deals with all this.  

Tenth Week:
Samuel Johnson, “Idler 22”; Chris Serres and Glenn Howatt, “In Jail for Being In Debt”

This last section of the course has to do more specifically with the state and its relationship to debt—as a punisher of debtors, as a guarantor of the legal and social systems that make debts enforceable, and last of all as a debtor itself.

As soon as I picked this theme I knew one thing: we’re gonna read Samuel Johnson on debtor’s prisons. Reading Samuel Johnson is an end in itself. The Serres and Howatt, which is a news article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, deals with the increasing use of jail time as a punishment for folks who don’t follow court-ordered debt-repayment schedules: i.e., the fucking return of fucking debtor’s prisons. Not to put too fine a point on it. 

Eleventh Week:
David Graeber, “To Have it To Owe”

This is a short statement of some of the main historical arguments in Graeber’s Debt, a fascinating book. His thesis, oversimplified, is that “debt,” in a loose, informal sense, is a fundamental part of human community and life—we come into the world already incapable of repaying Mom for nine months of misery and danger—but that precise methods of reckoning and enforcing debt turn it into a political weapon that impoverishes and enslaves human beings. Whether he’s right or wrong, Graeber’s ideas form a meeting place for all the different senses of debt the course has talked about. As his arguments are also likely to be new to students, I have them do a few short writing assignments where they identify a single claim of Graeber’s and describe its effect on them. I’m hoping that in this way I can help them get used to seriously considering uncomfortably unusual ideas. 

Twelfth Week:
Some boring but important stuff about national debts, and their political origins. Also, more training in basic research methods. 

Thirteenth Week:
Marilynne Robinson, “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist”

Now that we’re talking about national debts, here’s my favorite living writer taking a blowtorch to the ideological foundations of austerity. I’ll walk them through this one slowly. 

Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at not badgering students when they don’t respond happily to work I like. I’ll be calling on those resources a lot this semester. 

Fourteenth Week:
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

As long as we’re talking about the senses in which a nation can be “indebted”… We finish with an essay that has been on many peoples’ minds this summer, and which, in the last few weeks, only seems more relevant. (Not to sound all Ken Burns, as white people apparently tend to do in Coates’s presence.) 

Since Coates’s essay provokes, from many readers, responses like “Slavery was a long time ago” [true, but redlining was last week] and “Everybody suffers” [true, but not everybody immiserates an entire people group for hundreds of years], I’m giving students an exploratory essay assignment here. I tell them, in effect, to take a claim from Coates and nudge it around a little. (Obviously, I give a little more instruction than that.) Don’t try to take a global position on his whole argument. It’s too big. I certainly don’t know what-all to do with it, and I’ve been more or less pro-reparations for years. 

I made the syllabus weeks ago, and I don’t mean to be more self-promotional than even a personal blog can sustain. But I have to say that the fact that I admire Coates to the point of inflicting this profoundly emotionally difficult piece on the thirty-six young souls entrusted to my care—well, that obviously made this even more of a day-brightener. 

One response to “Debt, Obligation, and Forgiveness: A First-Year Composition Syllabus

  1. It’s been a while since I’ve been gob-smacked by a blog-post, but you’ve gone and done it. By the time I got to the close, I was thinking, “Why aren’t ALL first-year comp classes devoted to the subject of ‘Debt’?” That’s the way it is with the “obvious” — it’s not often obvious.

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