narrative, “Fast Car,” clichés, and the purpose(s) of first year composition

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a week now. My students are working on personal narratives, ones in which they need to analyze the events and support a thesis. Additionally, they need to think about it rhetorically: who is their audience (beyond me; I know, a typical composition contrivance) and what is their purpose. My students were struggling a lot with audience (why can’t you just tell a story to tell a story) and coming up with a thesis that their narratives could support.

So, I brought in Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”:

We had a great discussion about the narrative in the song, who it’s addressed to, how the narrator analyzes the events (though not so explicitly), and what conclusions she draws (her thesis).

From my notes on the song before class:

Narrative: The speaker’s dad is an alcoholic and mother has left the family, so the narrator gets a job. But she’d rather leave town and go to the city with this guy who has a fast car — because being with him in the fast car makes her feel like she is someone and belongs. However, once in the city with this guy and children, she finds that she’s supporting the guy and making all the money (just like when she lived with her father).

Analysis: The guy’s got a fast car, but leaving a place with a fast car doesn’t actually mean change. Change is something more than the superficial leaving of a place. The car doesn’t represent the hope she thought it did.

Audience: The speaker is talking to the guy (the “you”).

Thesis (paraphrased): “Your fast car didn’t actually deliver life and change — in fact, it doesn’t represent the hope I once thought it did.” And she tells the guy to leave.

Exigence: Her husband is a drunken deadbeat and she wants him out.

Some students brought up that this song is about being someone, and that some symbol or other person can’t do it for you — that you become someone by being yourself. It’s a bit self-reliant, but I think it’s also a good reading of the song.

As we talked about what conclusions the narrator was drawing, some students brought up “History repeats itself” and a few other conclusions of the like. I asked why Tracy Chapman didn’t say these things in the song, and a student stated “Because it’s cliché.” Not the fan of clichés, I was excited that a student brought this up.

Of course, clichés are hard to think through. As I was researching empathy, I came across Steven Carter’s 1969 CCC article “Freshman English and the Art of Empathy,” which discusses a teacher’s need to empathize with students in order to draw them out of their passivity. I liked parts of the article, and found parts of it problematic or condescending (for instance, Carter claims that a first year student “has no true thoughts of his own” [40]). But what I really loved was Carter’s explanation of the types of cliché and the purpose of first year composition.

According to Carter, there are three types of cliché:
1. “cliché of phrase, least harmful, like ‘grain of salt'”
2. “cliché of action or wisdom, true but tired, like “Hast makes waste'”
3. “cliché of thought or institution, like “Conformity” or “Americanism” or “The death of the modern hero” (41).

He goes on to discuss the question that is inevitably thought, if not outright asked, by students: why take first year writing. Writing teachers often respond that some day in the future, you’ll have to write something. Carter calls this a cliché because the teacher hasn’t thought through what a good apology for the course is. The goal of the course shouldn’t be so that a student can write a persuasive letter to his or her parents asking for more money. He offers that the purpose is, in part, “a search for hidden and useful truth at the expense of homily or weary assumption” (42). I am not entirely in agreement with this claim, but I think that behind it is the commonplace “critical thinking.”

I like to draw attention to process and to purpose in class, and to draw attention and discuss unstated assumptions, like why students are forced to take first year writing. I excerpted a few paragraphs from this article and brought them into class, and we had a [I hope] fruitful discussion about clichés and the purpose of first year writing.

My favorite part of the class when when we discussed Carter’s claim that “The death of the modern hero” is a cliché of thought. Students seemed reluctant to talk about the cliché, so I asked them who some current heroes are. Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, Bono, Oprah, and so forth. Why? Worked hard, succeeded more than others, devoted to good causes, etc. “How would you respond then, if someone, probably of grandparents’ generation, said there are no more heroes?” I asked.

One student smartly moved to definition, interrogating the cliché through asking “what is a hero?” Another student discussed the way media plays a role in hero creation, and how media ignored the personal lives of heroes, so that we now get the dirty laundry on our celebrity heroes that we didn’t on the supposedly more “authentic” heroes of the past. Of course, we could have kept going with interrogating clichés (and even the concept of hero), but we were running low on time, so I asked what other “clichés of thought” we could think of, and I referred back to the Tracy Chapman song. One student mentioned “History repeats itself,” and that we could interrogate it by actually looking at history. Another student added that we can also look at why history my repeat itself and then intervene to stop it.

This last point was a great way to end class. Carter discusses this very notion in regards to cliché, though it wasn’t in the excerpt we read in class. Noting that someone who cheats on his taxes might defend himself by saying “What can I do? That’s the way the world is,” Carter states that “Certainly that’s the way the world is — because Mr. X cheats on his income taxes” (41). Our clichés actually create the world, and if we stopped to think about, does it have to be this way, then we might actually be able to change the world.

Two great class periods. The question looms over me, though, is if these conversations will help students think beyond cliché as they write their essays.

Carter, Steven. “English and the Art of Empathy.” College Composition and Communication 20.1 (February 1969): 39-42.

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2 Responses to narrative, “Fast Car,” clichés, and the purpose(s) of first year composition

  1. Laura says:

    Thanks, Michael! Helpful thoughts.

  2. Pingback: The Salt-Box » Teaching Carnival 3.1

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