Teaching, Writing, and Quarantine: This is a Mess

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It’s Easter Sunday, it’s raining, and I’ve been in my house for almost a month. I was hoping this blog post would come together quickly, that I would have some technical trick or insightful advice to impart to all of us who have moved composition and IRW courses online. But I don’t have any wisdom or online teaching hacks to share, and the post hasn’t come together at all. This is a mess.


Last week, I intended to conference with each of my composition students individually to discuss the discourse community profiles they are composing for their final project—or at least the thesis and outline for these profiles. But I’ve only managed to connect with about half of the students, despite multiple attempts to contact them via email and our university-based online outreach program. I also have a couple of upper-level courses that were online even before the stay-at-home orders were given; one class was supposed to submit drafts of the literature review for their course projects on Friday. I got two drafts and a host of emails requesting more time—which I of course gave. What can I say? I am trying to finish an article by a self-imposed May 1 deadline, and my literature review has not emerged out of my research and early drafting, either. I’ve read it and re-written it a number of times. I look at the varied chunks of text I’ve written, texts that teeter precariously on top of each other like Jenga blocks. A few sections must be deleted, but I’m afraid the whole thing will topple when I pull them out. It’s a mess.


The first-year writers I have met with are, without exception, apologetic. “I’m sorry I haven’t done more. I can’t seem to focus very well. I keep getting stuck on the wording here, and nothing sounds right.”


“It’s a mess, Dr. Moore.”


I’ve been thinking about that word—mess. Growing up in the deep South, we used mess in the sense of casual clutter, temporary and rather normal disorder or dishevelment: “Have you been playin’ in the mud? Aren’t you a mess!” “You know we’re gon’ have to straighten up this mess before you can go outside, right, sugar?” “A little mess never hurt nobody…”


But mess also meant a portion—a meal’s worth of something. My accountant father loved to fish and garden. He’d come in on a Saturday afternoon in the late summer and announce he’d “caught a mess of fish,” or “picked a good mess o’ butterbeans.” 


That second use of mess—a portion of food—reflects the etymology of the word, from past participle of the Latin verb mittere, (missum), which meant “to put,” as in “to put on the table.” It also came to mean a place where food was shared by small groups, hence the notion of a mess-hall. That the food served might not always by appetizing, or that it might only be fit for animal feed, may have led to the idea that a mess is chaos.


Yep, this is a mess.


But it’s ok to be in a mess—even to be a mess. We can call it what it is, and neither I nor my students have to pretend otherwise. We don’t have to like it. 


Still, it’s ok. This mess isn’t going to last forever.  


And a little mess may be just what we need to sustain us in this moment—a mess of beans plus a mess of okra and a little pork may not be a gourmet dish, but with patience and imagination and a little effort, it will make a meal. 


When students tell me that their work is a mess, we can talk about what drew them to their topics to begin with, or what they hate about doing research, or why anxieties or tangents keep distracting them. Maybe as they talk through the mess, possibilities will arise; an outline will take shape. Maybe not—but we’ll keep talking.


Yes, we’ve got a mess right now—but it’s ok. We’ll muddle through the class, the semester, and the quarantine. The written mess we’re looking at together will eventually be discourse community profiles, literature reviews, a decent article, or maybe even a blog post.


It’s a mess. It’s still raining, and this blog post will not rank among my best. But having written it, I think I’m ready to take another stab at that literature review.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.