16 July 2006

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig's cult classic, is not a writing text, per se. It does, however, provide valuable insights into writing, as well as the self. The book is, on the surface, the story of a man and his son on a cross-country motorcycle trip. Along the way, the man discusses "Quality," an idea which has driven him to insanity. The man had, before his breakdown, been a teacher of rhetoric. His applications of "Quality' to his classes are what make the book especially appealing.

Since it is not a writing text, the book does not include activities or assignments. The material on writing that it does contain is buried, and mostly used as illustration to make philosophical arguments more concrete.

Making the abstract more concrete is, however, what this book offers as a writing text. Persig uses each of the modes effectively, thus providing ready examples of what is to be accomplished with each assignment. For instance, he shows the brainstorming invention strategy, in a letter-writing context, on pages 248-250; the Church of Reason lecture on pages 131-134 is a definition essay; the book is filled with examples of description; the process of the scientific method is analysed on pages 92-97; other examples of these, and the other modes, are both clear and easy to find. Since these examples all appear within the context of a story, pointing them out to students will produce a greater awareness of how often and easily these modes are used.

Since this is a novel, not a textbook, students should have no difficulty with the reading. It is not, in spite of the philosophical content, a difficult book to read. It is only when one stops to think about it that the book becomes difficult; if students do this, wonderful. That is not my focus, but it is a secondary benefit or painful side-effect, depending on one's perspective. I want students to read it, yes, for exposure to the ideas it contains; I want to use it as a basis for discussion of the various modes it employs, and if doing that makes the question, "What is Quality," an agenda, it is an agenda I am proud to support.

I realize that using Zen as a text for freshman composition is out of the ordinary. It will be possible to avoid the literature-teacher problem, however, by ignoring the book. If it is not treated as literature, but only as a source of examples for the modes, no conflict will arise. It will be assigned at the beginning of the term; a series of simple content quizzes may be used to establish that it is being read; the only other references will come when students turn to a particular page to examine the passage as an example of writing. And if the book is only providing examples, which are divorced from context, the quizzes are not even necessary. Whether students read the entire book or not is, in effect, immaterial. Hopefully, they would take an interest in it, as the source of so many examples; if not, all they miss is an explanation of the agenda it sets for the class.

This agenda promotes independent learning. By this, I do not mean the abdicate my role as an instructor; I mean that the students are the only ones who can improve their writing. I can teach them the conventions which demonstrate competency and the tricks others have found effective; they, however, must decide how to apply them. And they, ultimately, are the judges of their work: they decide whether a piece is good enough to turn in. I can only show them how to improve.


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