Respectfully Michael: A Narrative Exploration of Student Writing and What We Might Make of Its Beautiful Disruptions
I imagine that Michael Buehre Stackpole could reduce even the most seasoned composition instructor to cliché. At least, this is what I say to make myself feel better about the fact that an earlier draft of this essay opened with a classic line of empty praise.
“Michael is the kind of student I wish every student could be.”
I take my own writing advice and move my body. The next draft and I arrive at a neighborhood coffee shop. The linoleum tiles are sticky with old syrup flavors, flecks of blue and green dot their aging angles. In my childhood, this was an ice cream parlor. I can almost smell the ghosts of freshly baked waffle cones. Now, the building’s walls are plastered with framed photos of my hometown’s history. From behind the navy blue counter, a young barista sells fair trade coffee to customers with well-groomed moustaches.
Someone suddenly occupies the table next to mine, opens a deliciously grease-stained box, silently offers a slice of pizza in my direction. Who could say where the food has come from? I remove my headphones, take in the din of coffee shop conversation, and politely decline. The person smiles, then leaves the shop, quick as the steam piping off his pizza. He reminds me of Michael, quiet and generous, seeking human connection.
I begin again.
Mere days into my English 151: Writing and Argument course, mere days into my second semester teaching college composition—ever—Michael Buehre Stackpole sent me the following email.
From: Michael Stackpole
To: Gina Keplinger
Subject: Appreciation of Class Subjects
Fri, Jan 18, 12:23 AM
Hello Gina Keplinger,
I just got done with my second low stakes writing assignment and just wanted to say that I appreciate the topics we are talking and reading about in class. While I feel we may have some differing views on some of the topics based on conversation in class but I am not sure because you have never outright told me your views I do find the topics engaging and meaningful. I thoroughly enjoy talking about these topics and it is making this class one of my favorite classes this semester which I am somewhat surprised to hear myself say as I am not very strong or usually entertained by writing and English. I'm glad you clearly stated in the syllabus about how we can express our views and I think the "If you were born where they were born, and you were taught what they are taught, you would believe what they believe" quote is a great way of putting things. Ultimately I appreciate the opportunity to write freely on these topics for class and your enthusiasm when it comes to teaching this class although I may struggle to show during class. Thank you.
Michael Buehre Stackpole
Three times a week, Michael is nearly unreadable. In the early days, he does not raise his hand to engage in class discussions. He silently scans the white board, covered in my curly handwriting. His face is calm. His hands are still as standing water. I imagine he works to make sense of notes like ethos, pathos, logos, and audience, but I cannot be sure. He does not tell me what he is thinking, though he thanks me for having class. As a graduate student instructor, this is more than enough.
Michael’s email undoes me. His note is the most expressive he has been since the semester’s beginning.
I understand the task at hand—write an essay that centers student writing so that it might be amplified and used as a teaching tool. But I want to suggest that it is not enough to say that students in English departments compose essays. They compose themselves before entering our classrooms, again, before they speak in front of peers, again, when they draft emails to instructors, or ask for help during office hours. Everything about our students is an assembly—careful, reckless, or somewhere in-between—of thoughts, language, behaviors, and texts. I encourage my students to think of writing as a process, not a product, to be reflexive, to revise by living their lives and thinking of anything other than writing before they return to the page. And so, I center Michael’s writing. And his emails. And our conversations. And the way his compositions—all of them—so clearly collide with, and impact, mine.
In David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University,” Bartholomae spends time with the concluding text of a student paper about “his [the writer’s] work as a mechanic.” The writer comes to a clear stopping point in thought and analysis, simply writing “I don’t know” before moving into what Bartholomae refers to as a “Lesson on Life” (not the critical analysis a composition instructor might hope for). Highlighting the issues of discourse and expertise in student papers, Bartholomae writes, “When the writer says, ‘I don't know,’ then, he is not saying that he has nothing to say. He is saying that he is not in a position to carry on this discussion (62-63).
As a composition instructor, I believe there is something inherently beautiful about this stopping point. Intentional or otherwise, it disrupts any attempt at academic discourse and discussion. It is green and honest. It is human. Bartholomae attributes this pause to a lack of privileged language—that of the academy. In this moment, I don’t have much interest in giving this student a new language for their uncertainty. Rather, I want to learn from their language, from that which they already know. I want to implement it in my classroom. If our students are re-shaped by who we are and what we teach, isn’t it true that we are re-shaped by what they think, and speak, and produce? Rather than succumbing to the sheer panic that arrived when my students asked a question for which I did not have an answer, rather than frantically perspiring through overly complicated, and sometimes inauthentic, explanations for my students, couldn’t I have acknowledged my own humanity? I wonder how different my classroom might have felt had I had the simple courage to say, “I don’t know,” followed by, “I’d like to do a little research and learn more about that with you.” Sometimes, the best work in composition involves letting ourselves be—on the page or in the classroom. Sometimes, the best work in composition involves giving ourselves permission to come uncomposed.
According to his email, Michael thinks we may have differing views, but cannot be certain because I have not expressed my own outright. To me, this suggests that Michael is curious, engaged, has cultivated a strong sense of wonder. Perhaps more than this, he is listening. What’s particularly marvelous to me is the idea that our potential differences do not prohibit him from “… thoroughly enjoy[ing] talking about these topics” that include conversations about racism, place, and gender inequality.
Michael, my student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), is white, identifies as a man, and has spent the majority of his life in a town smaller than some high schools in my hometown. Nebraska prides itself on being nice. A former tourism slogan humbly implores, “Visit Nebraska. Visit Nice.” In the privacy afforded by end-of-semester evaluations, students often expressed nervousness at enrolling in a course called Writing and Argument. I could not be surprised by this. Not after the long stretches of silence we endured together, the palpable quiet more appealing than the possibility of contradicting someone else’s thoughts. More often than not, “Nebraska Nice” means, save your opinions for closed doors.
In 2018, the Nebraska Tourism Commission revised our state slogan:
“Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”
Later in this essay, Michael will compose a research paper. You’ll need this background information to understand the complexity of his chosen topic, the privilege of his extreme accomplishment, the ways he endeavored to speak when he, like so many of us, might have remained more comfortable saying nothing at all.
Among other things, a successful author’s note will
- Walk me through your process of planning, organizing, writing, and revising the draft
- What was your process like? Did you write more successfully in coffee shops than at home? Did you revise more successfully after you had had enough sleep? Enough to eat? Gone to the gym? How did it feel (name some emotions) to organize and write your paper…
Gate G17 is located in the basement of O’Hare. I know the humidity level is high here because I can’t tuck my curls neatly behind an ear—they spring back, unruly, perhaps boycotting this canceled flight home to Omaha. I give up, twist a scrunchie around them, and settle into the rhythmic hiss of coffee brewing at the kiosk behind me. I listen to my body and scour the concourse for a bagel. I listen to my body and stretch my legs. I listen to my body and call my mom.
“How are you feeling today, honey?”
I tell her that I’m sad. Long distance is the break in my voice, the wet streaks in my foundation like melting stars. I am leaving my love in this city, returning home to a pristine apartment, satisfying job, and a deep sense of loneliness that anchors itself in my pocket wherever I go. My stomach is a knotted conflict. I am fiercely independent, a fervent lover of the Great Plains, and somehow, already sketching my small self into the Chicago skyline. I am completely uncomposed. My lover’s new location pulls me apart like a tide.
Gina, focus. You have an essay to write.
Once I had completed some research, I wrote a rough draft. After completing the rough draft, I looked back at it and began to ask more questions that weren’t addressed in the rough draft. Upon doing so I researched more and organized that research and information from my interview. . . to form a final draft.
Michael appears on the page, in this excerpted author’s note framing his final draft, totally composed. His reflection is neat, clinical. He does not mention hunger or loneliness. There is simply a boy, a text, and a system. I appreciate the way he distinguishes drafts and seeks the gaps in his composition by asking questions of it. As a student, one of Michael’s greatest strengths is his willingness to seek out weaknesses in his writing, to not look away, but to address them, to think through them, and write beyond them. As a person, one of Michael’s greatest strengths is his willingness to seek out weaknesses in his knowledge and understanding of others, to not look away, but to address them, think through them, and grow beyond them.
Weeks before this, Michael sat across from me in my office, wondering if we could brainstorm topics for the research essay I assigned. He seemed uneasy. We began with a conversation about things Michael likes before moving into a conversation about things Michael is curious about. Reluctantly, Michael admitted he did have one idea for an essay that he would run by me, if I wanted to hear it. (Of course I wanted to hear it.) He was sure to tell me he knew next to nothing about the topic, which I affirmed was a pretty excellent way to begin a research project.
Before I make Michael speak in this essay, remember that he is a cisgender, white man from a small town in Nebraska. Remember that he is young, a freshman in his first English course at a Big 10 institution. Remember that we have known each other for less than a semester. Michael takes a beat, then a breath, says something like,
“I’ve been thinking about researching transgender people and mental health.”
I think I respond with something asinine and unhelpful, like, “Really?” As we say in the Midwest, Michael is serious as a heart attack. And so we’re off.
Michael knows that people who are transgender experience higher rates of suicide and wonders if it’s because they have mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Or perhaps it’s because society stigmatizes their identities, their existence.
“What if it’s both?” I ask. “Couldn’t two things be true at the same time?” I make every effort to ensure that Michael knows being transgender and having a diagnosable mental health disorder are separate things. We talk about healthcare, feel frustrated together that a diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria is often what “legitimizes” gender identity and permits access to hormones and gender affirming surgeries. Michael leaves my office, grateful, energized, ready to write.
Though this won’t appear in his author’s note, you should know he left smiling.
In Michael’s official project proposal, he writes:
I have never knowingly met a transgender person before or had much of a conversation about transgender people with someone and I think it will be a good experience for me to be exposed to. I am equally nervous and afraid since I lack much knowledge on transgender culture I don’t want to come off as ignorant or offensive in my attempts to learn.
Here is Michael’s admission of nervousness, fear of appearing ignorant, of being offensive, an admission that so many students—that so many of us—carry like weights around our ankles as we consider entering conversations in which we are not experts. I don’t mean to say that Michael is a hero for researching this topic. In fact, his social status, his gender identity and race, afford him great safety in this discussion. I don’t mean to say that I am a hero for being the instructor who guided Michael through his research. In fact, my social status, my gender identity and race, afford me great safety in this discussion. I want to recognize, though, that the things Michael does and does not name—fear, anxiety, nervousness—are things that can paralyze us, that can prevent us from having these conversations at all. Michael uses them, instead, as motivators, captures them on the page, processes them, and uses them to propel him toward the obstacle of this project.
Later in his proposal, Michael explicates upon the significance of his research, writing, “This topic should matter to all people because no matter who you are and what your circumstances are nobody should feel that the only solution to their problems is suicide.” Michael makes an emotional appeal to his audience, which is me.
Nearly one year after Michael submits this essay assignment, someone I know dies by suicide far away from Nebraska. Their death still rattles our community.
Composition is a contact sport—again and again, Michael’s writing collides with my real life. I could erase this section of my essay, and it would still function as an essay. I could erase this tangent, pretend that I do not bring a new kind of emptiness to the page now. I could be stoic and composed, but that would mean offering you a half-truth. A product without the process. Michael makes me want to be a different writer, one who is less of a liar. When I return to this phrasing, it nearly brings me to my knees.
. . . nobody should feel that the only solution to their problems is suicide.
You’re right. I wish it were this easy. I wish you could love someone back to life.
In class, I frequently ask my students to take rhetorical risks. I tell them that five paragraph essays don’t interest me if they can’t advance an argument. I ask what format they might use if they want to make an argument that poetry isn’t dead, is something more than decrepit white men. I wonder if the addition of photos might do heavy lifting in their argument about the devastation of climate change, of natural disasters. In response to this, Michael leaves a note in the margins of his second draft:
I feel like my paper is boring to read. . . I wasn't very creative with this one at least so far. My only creativity is the beginning letter of each paragraph spells out the words stigmas and distress which I feel are really important to understand with this topic.
Incredibly enough, Michael has seamlessly snuck these messages into his paper—the paragraphs start so naturally, I never would have noticed this rhetorical risk without his comment. I often tell my students that if their paper bores them, as composers, it will almost certainly bore their audience. It’s good to hear Michael give voice to this classroom request of mine—to try something fresh, to risk failure, to attempt. Though the rigid structure limits Michael’s content, and his final draft contains no such hidden message, his willingness to play, especially within the confines of an academic classroom, impresses me. Instead of emphasizing language like “stigma” or “distress,” Michael reconsiders, or recenters, his argument. He writes, “… I always appreciate when studying the demographic of transgender people using the term people. This is because when researchers are running numbers, creating graphs, and analyzing statistics others who see these numbers often forget the people behind them.” Societal and cultural expectations push the people in Michael’s essay to the margins. Time and time again, Michael’s final draft brings their humanity back into focus:
No matter your belief any other person of any demographic deserves respect whether your beliefs combat theirs or not. This directly applies to the stigmas behind transgender people. If people applied this concept, the distress transgender people face would lower and so would their suicide attempt rate.
In every stage of Michael’s essay, he is tasked with articulating a change relevant to his research topic. Michael asks his audience to reframe the inordinate suicidality rates of transgender people, to consider them issues beyond tracking numbers and data, but issues of names, stories, and experiences. He enacts this change by giving it language, and, therefore, power. His final draft includes the voice of someone who is transgender. He names them. Uses their pronouns correctly. With their permission, he quotes them directly in an effort to let them tell their own story. Regarding the social treatment of people who are transgender, Michael advocates for a clear change in thought, which his paper evidences results in changes in language or speech, and eventually action.
I consider Michael’s careful choice of respect as he writes “. . . any demographic deserves respect whether your beliefs combat theirs or not.” Not everything is a fist fight.
I think of the ways my more conservative students wrestle with their belief structures, the ways another first-year compositionist came to me this same semester with a ready desire to write an essay in defense of the Second Amendment. I took a deep breath, chased it with a sip of coffee, and listened. I heard about safety measures, machine care, the community that unites behind gun sights. I let my girl-heart race as I thought about gender-based violence and the gunpowder so many of us swallow. And I did not get mad. Instead, I told this student the truth—the thing that interested me, his audience, the most about this topic was community. “Say more about that,” I urged. From community came hunters, from hunters came prey, from prey came deer, came overpopulation, came ecological concerns and population control. The student had found a new spin on an old story and emerged on the other side of their research having learned. A teaching goal set, balanced precariously upon the thesis of respect.
Finally, Michael makes a striking call for increases in empathy and education:
Empathy towards a demographic would be expected when they have such a high rate of attempted suicides but unfortunately that is not always the case. It is important that people are educated on transgender culture to ensure they are understanding and accepting. If not, they can cause more distress than a person who is transgender may or may not already be facing.
Though I would have perhaps used the word “communities” in lieu of “culture” in Michael’s second sentence, his close attention to language throughout the rest of the paper makes him a believable narrator—there is evidence in each paragraph of Michael’s efforts to channel his anxieties about appearing ignorant in a positive way, there is evidence in each paragraph of Michael’s efforts to do as little harm as possible, to get things right. Here, I echo Bartholomae. “What I am saying about my students' essays is that they are approximate, not that they are wrong or invalid” (69). Again and again, Michael approximates. His writing yields imperfect results to which I give high marks—perhaps a small reminder to myself to celebrate the attempt, the draft, the trying on of new discourse. Perhaps a small reminder to myself to celebrate the process. Perhaps a small reminder to myself to continue the classroom discussion, the essay, to write and speak through my own un-knowing.
The intervention in the discipline of composition is deceptively simple: a larger consideration for the people behind the papers. Though our students might not be “inventing a language that is new” (Bartholomae 67), they are always (re)inventing themselves and their understanding of the experts at the front of their classrooms. It is not enough to allow room for that reinvention. We should book it a venue and throw it a party. There should be good music and confetti. A tiered cake. Fountain drinks. Perhaps this means deviating from a syllabus, sharing something that makes us vulnerable to our students, or making extra time to extend discussions that can’t be neatly tied within a fifty-minute class period. When composition focuses too narrowly on student work, or scholarly work, or homework, or work days, or work, or work, or work, we lose sight of the wide-angle lens. We lose sight of the person, the first-year writer, the thinker, the doer, the new-to-this-discourse-and-sweating-over-it, pen holder. Composition must find ways to break chilly academic conventions, must instead risk losing time or falling behind schedule or lightening the burdensome load of course readings if it means we can better connect—with our students, and with ourselves.
Michael’s essay, the one that reveals his development as a writer and a human, tells me this is worth the risk.
The truth is, I do not know how to conclude this chapter. Michael is no longer my student, and I am no longer in academia. I work for a nonprofit now. I compose emails and snippets of poems just before sleep. I drink coffee and sing off-key at concerts and wonder, at least once a day, if I will ever be half as composed as the beautiful people I scroll past on my newsfeed. I take dance classes every week, miss a step, and feel deeply disappointed in myself. For the first time in nineteen years, I am not in school. No one puts an A+ on my work projects, so I do not know if I am worthy.
There is no neat way to end an essay that, perhaps permanently, feels like a first draft. I turn to Michael for answers. In the concluding lines of his essay, Michael writes, “Ultimately, it is going to take a cultural shift to be more accepting and understanding of transgender people.” A cultural shift begins in a body as small as mine, I think to myself. And perhaps I am right.
I think about serendipity and collision, the happy accident of meeting Michael, the way his essay and mine—the way his life and mine—are now a single composition. To understand and accept the people around me, I imagine I must understand and accept myself first. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I turn away from the page. I have some living to do.
 The quote Michael references from my syllabus is not mine, but one I borrow from my high school’s World Cultures teacher—it orients our classroom conversations, especially the politically charged conversations, which are all of them.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University,” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 5, no. 1, spring 1986, pp. 4- 23.