The Theory of Omission

In his essay “Writing by Omission,” John McPhee (2015) quotes Ernest Hemingway who, in his 1932 nonfiction book Death in the Afternoon, describes his theory of omission : “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

In a 1966 interview with George Plimpton in the New York Times Book Review, Truman Capote also endorses this theory, while reflecting on his non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood. “I suppose if I used just 20 percent of all the material I put together over those years of interviewing, I’d still have a book two thousand pages long! I’d say 80 percent of the research I did I have never used.”

When I assign a non-fiction text,  I like to challenge students to infer, from what they read in an essay, what the author didn’t use. Inferring what a writer left out is a great exercise to illuminate the power of a writer’s choices. This exercise is also a great way to start a discussion about choice:  how do you know what to cut out and what to leave in?

In this exercise, I want students to examine and make a guess about the part of the iceberg that isn’t visible. Make some guesses about the 80 % that never made it into the essay.  What was left out? Why do you think it was left out? What facts, research, stories, or studies must have been known by the author but doesn’t appear on the page?

I use an essay like Tom Philpott’s “How Factory Farms Play Chicken with Antibiotics,” about the use of antibiotics in the poultry industry.  In its original form, published in Mother Jones magazine, the essay is accompanied by 10 pictures, 4 bold-faced blurbs, three infographics and one video clip. There are 54 paragraphs and around 4700 words.

Philpott introduces Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s vice president for food safety, who serves as sort of an informational guide for the whole essay. Speaking in first person, Philpott starts us in a scene: “The massive metal double doors open and I’m hit with a whoosh of warm air. Inside the hatchery, enormous racks are stacked floor to ceiling with brown eggs.”

As students read, I ask them to keep a running list of ideas, information, facts, figures, studies, research, etc., that the writer must have known, but has clearly left out. Students demonstrate what they think was left out through collecting textual evidence, and they make some guesses about why the author omitted it.

In this essay, Philpott breezily moves back and forth between narrative, information, and argumentation.   Students immediately notice that he has omitted the USDA guidelines for poultry production, much of the history of poultry farming, and the relationship Philpott has with Stewart-Brown.

The next conversation we have is why. Why does he leave these elements out?

“He doesn’t need it,” Leslie said. “He’s paring it down to the essentials.”

“The essentials of what? The story?” I ask.

“He doesn’t need it for the story he’s telling,” she said. “He’s only putting in stuff for his reasons.”

“His reasons?”

“His purpose, what he’s trying to tell the reader about,” she concluded.

This activity goes a long way to show students that not every ingredient they’ve laid out on the kitchen table of their research has to go into the soup of their argument; only those ingredients that’s going to make the dish delicious and nutritious, only those elements that support purpose.

This activity has two benefits:  it illustrates the power of choice and it also illustrates Hemingway’s theory of omission.  The most powerful essays are the ones that feature the dignity of the iceberg.

Thoughts from our Blogging Unit II: A New Year’s Wish for Compassion

As I mentioned in my previous post, my students finished the year with a unit on blogging.  It was a great opportunity to teach argumentation and the rhetorical situation. During this political season, I had no dearth of subject matter.

Maybe because I’ve been hip deep in contentious subjects for six weeks, I have been drawn to stories of harmony and humanity.  During my morning commute, two stories from NPR caught my ear.

One was about a Tennessee solider named Roddie Edmond who was being awarded posthumously Israel’s “Righteous Among the Nations,” the highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. According to the story, it was the first time a US solider has been given this award. NPR’s Emily Harris interviewed Edmond’s son, Chris Edmonds, for the story.

Edmonds, a master sergeant from Knoxville, was the highest ranking American solider in his Nazi POW camp, and when the guards demanded all Jews in the camp step forward to be identified, Edmonds ordered every US solider to step forward.

“They cannot all be Jews,” the German commander said, according to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center.

“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.

According to the story Chris Edmonds relates, the commander was furious.

“He turned blood-red, pulled his Luger out, pressed it into the forehead of my dad, and said, ‘I’ll give you one more chance. Have the Jewish men step forward or I will shoot you on the spot.’ They said my dad paused, and said, ‘If you shoot, you’ll have to shoot us all.’ ”

The second story was about John Graziano, one of the first elementary-age children diagnosed with HIV in the United States.  During a visit on NPR’s StoryCorps, Tom Graziano, John’s adoptive father, spoke with John’s elementary school principal, Paul Nilsen, about the events of 1986.  When John’s diagnosis came to light, Nilsen was adamant about John staying at his school. “We’re gonna treat him no different than we’d treat any other child in the room,” said Nilsen.  John’s classmates were equally magnanimous. In the story, Nilson recalls, “If anybody asked the kids in the room who had AIDS, each of them would reply: “I have AIDS.”

These two stories were on the air during the first week of December, two weeks before Michael Moore’s open letter to Donald Trump and subsequent social media movement #WeAreAllMuslims, but I had the same reaction as Moore to the divisive, inhuman rhetoric that has seemingly dominated current political conversations.

I am saddened by the hate and bigotry on display in our culture.  I call on all teachers, regardless of subject or grade level, to teach kids to think critically, to recognize bias, to recognize emotional manipulation and fear mongering as a weak argumentative stance, and to research claims made on social media for credibility.

Every lesson, at its core, should be grounded in recognizing our own humanity in others and striving to engender compassion, consideration, and empathy in all students.

We could take a lesson from Roddie Edmonds and the second-grade classroom of John Graziano. Yes, we are all Jews. We all have AIDS, and we are all Muslims. But unfortunately, we are also all Donald Trump and Kanye West. We are Obama and Osama, Jesus and Judas, Atticus Finch and Bob Ewell.

As Atticus says, addressing his young daughter, Scout: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

 

 

 

Thoughts from Our Blogging Unit I: A New Year’s Wish for Balance

Recently my freshman/sophomore writing class finished a unit on blogging. Students created their blogging personas, created a Sway page, which is a new storytelling app through Office, and dispatched four posts on any topic they chose.   Many of our conversations leading up to the summative project centered around how each blog post was, in essence, a mini-argument. All blogs, at their most elemental, say:  This is the way the world works or this is the way I see the world working.

To get students thinking critically about current events, I wrote an essential question on the board every morning: Does a political candidate’s religion matter? Are news outlets biased? Should drug addicts be forced into rehab?  Why is Donald Trump so popular? Students would then scribble down their thoughts for five minutes, after which they would each read a short article about the topic from The New York Times’ fantastic resource Room for Debate, a topical collection of short articles from all sides of each   issue.  After reading, students broke out into small groups to unpack their articles for five minutes, then we finally reconvened for a group discussion. The whole process took about 40 minutes of a 90-minute instructional block.

One morning, in particular, we had an interesting conversation about helicopter parents.

Ruby suggested there was a historical aspect to it: Depression era parents grew up with nothing, so they showered their children with wealth and prosperity.  Those children became the Baby Boomers who were self-centered and narcissistic. They gave birth to children who were largely unparented.  Those children are now having kids of their own, and because of their childhood rootlessness, they were hypervigilant about child rearing, hence the helicoptering.

“Is every generation in rebellion with the previous one?”  David asked.

Nathan commented that it was just the pendulum swing of history.

“Maybe if the pendulum continues to swing eventually the swings will become milder and milder until the pendulum stops and we have the perfect parent,”   Michael suggested.

I said, “That sounds like a utopian wish. Is a perfect society possible?”

“No,” Avery said, “we’re all still human.”

Almost every day during this unit, I walked away from my morning class thinking, “I wish politicians could hear these smart, balanced kids.”

What I, and anyone else paying attention to our world this year, have noticed is an extreme polarization of ideology and rhetoric.  It’s been an extremely easy year to teach rhetorical fallacies because almost every day, from the left and the right, there are dozens of examples.

But, at the end of the day, like Avery said, we are all still human, and thereby flawed, perhaps unable to become milder and milder, and ultimately “perfect.”

However, my wish for my students, this year and every year, is that they strive toward that balance and harmony.  I wish my students, instead of clinging to that wildly swinging ideological plumb, would retain their measured, smart, level-headedness.  My New Year’s wish is that they continue to value and develop common sense, hope, balanced thinking, and compassion toward others.

And, in keeping with the blogging unit, I hope they find their voice and speak that into existence.

Happy New Year.