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Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Marvin Diogenes

For me, one of the surest signs of PWR’s post-pandemic comeback has been the return of PWR Director Marvin Diogenes’ open office door on the third floor of Sweet Hall. On a quiet Friday morning in August, I had the pleasure of passing through that door for the first time in a long time to chat with Marvin about his years at PWR, his thoughts on the relationship between his writing, teaching, and administrative work, as well as his personal perspective on the writing process. As you are probably aware, last spring Marvin was the recipient of Stanford’s distinguished Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service to Undergraduate Education. As we all share in the glow of this remarkable accomplishment, it is my honor to share what I discussed with our PWR Director Marvin Diogenes: Teacher, Writer, Scholar. 

Over the years, many of us have heard Marvin tell the stories of what brought him to rhetoric and writing studies, and why the work of PWR holds such a special place in his heart. These stories of course include his own experiences as an undergraduate at Stanford. Yet as Marvin tells the story, that trajectory didn’t truly appear to him until he started his graduate work in the context of an MFA in fiction writing in 1980 at the University of Arizona. It wasn’t until then that he realized his “future would be determined by the way my graduate education was funded by the university.” At Arizona, like at many large, public institutions, graduate students were the primary instructors for the first-year writing requirement. Newly arrived in the monsoonal swelter of a Tucson August, Marvin was thrown into a week of pedagogy meetings to prepare him for teaching two sections of first-year writing, an experience Marvin characterizes as “not unusual—a lot of people come to teaching writing this way” (several among our ranks have passed through this very same training at Arizona—including me in 2004). Once in the classroom, Marvin found himself “only a week ahead of the students in the reading.” His first year in graduate school also involved learning to teach a fall course emphasizing research-based writing, and a spring course focused on writing about literature, where the textbook, titled Elements of Literature, was colloquially referred to by many of the instructors as “Elephants of Literature.” You get the idea. According to Marvin, this situation represents “simultaneously one of the great tragedies” and “great stories” of American higher education: that thousands of grad students come into writing instruction and writing studies because that’s how they are funded (this was different at Stanford, notably–when graduate students taught writing here until 2013, they participated in a full quarter of pedagogy training and syllabus preparation and generally taught writing for two quarters in their second year). 

It was amid this first encounter with the teaching of writing that Marvin also had his first experience with rhetoric and writing program administration, through the then-director of Arizona’s writing program Charles Davis. Although Marvin went to Arizona to focus on the craft of fiction, to hear Marvin tell it, Davis’s colloquium lectures on rhetoric—with topics including the classical canons such as invention, arrangement, style—“changed my life.” During his second year in his program, Marvin became more interested in how the writing program worked, and served as an assistant to Director Davis alongside fellow MFA student and lifelong friend Clyde Moneyhun, whom some may remember as our Hume Center Director from 2004-2010 (Clyde now teaches at Boise State University). The experience led both of them to a professional interest in writing program administration work, and both have spent their careers in writing programs because of it. As Marvin puts it, both he and Clyde are both, in many ways, “Charles’ children intellectually,” and practically, too. That’s because “there’s something special about writing studies lineages. It’s not just intellectual, it’s administrative.” Practices Marvin learned from Charles are still part of his thinking today, including not only his interest in the “rhetorical tradition” but “day-to-day practices.”  Lineages persist, too, from Andrea Lunsford, who invited Marvin to Stanford in 2000 to serve as Associate Director of the writing program. As he muses,“The country and the world are filled with Andrea’s children.” 

Whenever I interview a colleague for the Newsletter’s Teacher, Writer, Scholar segments, I bring with me a fairly standardized set of questions that I ask. One special gratification of Marvin’s responses was the very-Marvin tendency to not only fill me in on his experience and perspective, but, in the process, to subtly prompt me to reconsider the assumptions of my questions themselves. For instance, when I asked Marvin what is the relationship between your own writing and your pedagogy, he paused for a long moment, and then deadpanned this line: “I knew nothing about revision until I became a teacher of writing.” I feel like pinning this aphorism on my office wall. During his own time at Stanford as an undergraduate, Marvin didn’t actually take undergraduate writing himself, so he didn’t ever have a writing teacher. When, in a Sociology course, he did finally experience an instructor who interacted with his ideas and asked him to revise a draft of an essay, Marvin explains that he “had so little understanding of revision” and its value “that I ignored her guidance.” Her response to the minimally-altered next version, which will undoubtedly resonate with colleagues in our Program: “Marvin, you haven’t developed this at all since we talked!” It was only in graduate school, in the context of teaching his own writing courses, that Marvin understood “not only how but also why to revise.” 

This important question—why revise?—becomes, for Marvin, connected to the problem of transfer we so often confront in writing pedagogy. “Think about your own students. They know you’re telling them to revise, and some will accept your advice because you’re the teacher. But how sure are we that they will carry with them why we revise? Because the rest of the world doesn’t tell them to.” This becomes a core pillar of what we as writing instructors offer undergraduates. It may be something we have to be “politic about stating openly” sometimes, but emphasizing the value of revision—and how PWR Lecturers are unique on campus because we truly take the time to read, listen to, and respond to students work—is, as Marvin describes it, really the “foundation” of everything he does administratively. In this capacity, Marvin often reflects, “How do I persuade people outside of PWR that they have a responsibility to teach the how and why of revision, and that doing so will often benefit them as teachers?” 

How does Marvin himself approach revision as a writer? “Learning how to revise has been the work of a lifetime,” says Marvin. His in-progress methodology, whether in the context of writing fiction or his frequent contributions to the PWR Newsletter, involves “the gradual amplification, expansion, exploration of whatever is there.” This isn’t a “systematic approach,” says Marvin, although generally speaking, it involves “Starting at the beginning, and revising the whole thing every time.” After reading Peter Elbow, Marvin says, “I’ve trained myself not to worry about the quality of the draft. I don’t think at all about quality at first.” Yet Marvin’s process of revision nevertheless manifests itself as a feature of his style as a writer, “I’m very parenthetical, digressive in my writing. A lot of that comes from the revision process.” Revision thus becomes an extension of the rhetorical canon of invention, which is part of why, for Marvin, there is “a real pleasure and joy in returning to a piece of writing in progress.” While he acknowledges that this particular model of revision may not be “viable” for our engagements with, say, an eighteen-year-old student in PWR 1, recognizing the rhetorical quality of revision contains lessons for how we might respond to students who might say, “Just tell me what to do!” Says Marvin on this point, “It’s not just a tweaking of a product. That’s cosmetic.” On the contrary, this work is as philosophical as it is rhetorical: “We are trying to teach writing as a way of being in the world. If you accept and embrace this, then revision, by necessity, becomes the work of your life. Not just a school assignment.” 

Here I took the opening to ask Marvin a little more about his own process as a writer. There was another pause in the conversation. It was at this point Marvin leaned forward ever so slightly, and brought me into a universe I only barely knew existed. “What do you know about the Composition Blues Band?” he asked. Fortunately for me, I had in fact heard of the Composition Blues Band (or CBB), albeit apocryphally, in CCCC lore, and here and there around PWR. Marvin confirmed the existence of this group, and subsequently took me on a wild ride of its early history at Arizona and in hotel suites at CCCC. Later on, CBB eventually became the house band at “Humor Night” at the conference. CBB also played at the WPA conference, and at a Computers and Writing conference hosted here at Stanford. Although they stopped performing on the rhet/comp conference scene after WPA in Boise in 2015, in 2017 they did a reunion set at the Hume Center. This line-up included former Hume Center Director Clyde Moneyhun, former PWR Lecturer Jonathan Hunt, PWR intern Justine DeSilva, and Oral Communication’s Tom Freeland. 

Understanding the CBB is simple, according to Marvin. You only have to realize that “everything you know about the rock-n-roll canon is fake. The original lyrics were all about writing, writing instruction, or writing program administration.” The vast lyrical conspiracy of all those songs you thought you knew may even go back to the standards of the American songbook. “You have to believe that the CBB premise is not a joke,” I was told sternly by Marvin. In fact this has been tested on non-compositionists. Marvin recounted one memorable afternoon when WPA was held in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the band played a few songs with the true writing pedagogy lyrics at a bar outside the conference venue. At first, the locals, unaffiliated with the conference, just “stared.” Before the set concluded, however, even these initially skeptical Michiganders recognized the truth. 

While the Composition Blues Band is no longer active, the archival work of recovering all of those lost lyrics about writing instruction goes on for Marvin. As it turns out, there are even songs in the canon written in the 1970s about topics pertinent to our own moment, in particular the ongoing conversation surrounding ChatGPT and similar platforms. Do you remember Bob Seger’s “Chat Can Do?” Turns out that was the original title of “Katmandu.” Even though Marvin, when pressed, will admit this “archive only exists in [his] mind,” that’s not the “insane” part. No, what’s insane is how “Bob Seger, in the 1970s, could have written about Generative AI.” Same goes for Mars Bonfire’s Steppenwolf lyric for “Born to be Wired.” And who can forget Nick Lowe’s classic, “I Don’t Deny That I Use the Bot to Roll”? It’s truly amazing that a Brit, from a country with no first-year writing requirement, had the foresight to write that classic back in the 1970s. Many of these connections come to Marvin as unbeckoned nocturnal visions, which is how he brought this real-life Borges parable back to my initial question regarding process. Serendipity, for Marvin, is key to the writing process, although he acknowledges how hard it is for us to stay open to it sometimes amid the myriad obligations of life and teaching. If you’d like to read about some of this CBB archive work check out the podcast episode Stanford Storytelling Project made about the CBB in 2011. And make sure to check out this video of their cover of Dusty Springfield’s classic “Radical Teacher Man” at CCCC 2011 in Atlanta. 

Ultimately, Marvin is deadly serious about CBB. The imagination and play involved in constructing this musical alternative universe captures his emphasis on writing as invention, and indeed as revision. When I asked him about the writing he is the proudest of from recent years, not surprisingly he said he would probably have referred us to the archival lyrical project of the CBB. Although he has found it challenging to balance fiction-writing with his work as PWR Director, he said, “I could always write CBB.” (The dormant literary historian in me wants to call the CBB universe Marvin’s equivalent of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Of course, the important difference here is that the CBB canon is real and Yoknapatawpha is fiction.) Marvin mentioned his various articles in the PWR Newsletter as well as writing he is especially pleased to have contributed, which, if you have been following them during the past few years, have been an absolute gift to PWR. If you missed these gems, check out his sequence on rethinking classic television as a framework for understanding our pedagogy “Episodes and Arcs: Narrative Experience in Television and the Writing Class,” “Better Sitcoms: From the Dick Van Dyke Show to Better Things,” and his latest, from the present issue, “Chuck Versus The Big Bang Theory: Intelligence as Commodity in the Land of Nerds.” Don’t miss, also, “The Discrete Charm of Grammar B—Style as/and Invention”, or Marvin’s From the Bridge segment from last spring, “Chatbot Confidential: Machine Magic and the Power of Language,” These articles are wildly inventive, and frankly a blast to read. At the same time, they weigh in on some of the most pressing issues of our time for writing studies (in particular “Chatbot Confidential,” which is my favorite). 

Who are the colleagues and mentors that have left special marks on Marvin’s pedagogy, and on his administrative and writing philosophies? Alongside Andrea Lunsford and Charles Davis, Arizona’s Tilly and John Warnock were especially influential. One of Marvin’s favorite metaphors for the role of the writing program at the university comes from Tilly Warnock, who directed Arizona’s writing program in the nineties. Countering the view of the writing requirement as a campus “gatekeeper,” Tilly, a southerner like Andrea Lunsford, thought of writing programs as the “front porch” of the university. It’s a welcoming place, “the way you come into the house of higher ed.” Both Andrea and Tilly shared and imparted the view to Marvin that writing is a profoundly “human activity,” that immerses students into thinking through language. Several other names came up as well from the fields of education, rhetoric, and writing research, and those names, too, were influential in Marvin’s encounters with them over the years (including a speaker series he coordinated at Arizona), including Sharon Crowley, Susan Miller, Mike Rose, and Victor Villanueva. 

What makes PWR such a special place for Marvin? To this question, without missing a beat, he replied, “The people,” although adding, after a moment, “If Christine were here she’d say the community. The people make the community.” Marvin told me also about a reflection he made recently in a conversation with retired PWR Lecturer Wendy Goldberg, who misses the program: “I don’t think members of the community realize that it’s fairly unusual for a program like ours to maintain its shape and its presence over time without any fundamental change. The requirements as they presently exist are twenty years old. What we’ve been able to do is maintain the core of those two requirements. There have been changes to the assignment sequences, but the two main courses are still the requirements: written RBA, oral RBA. This core wouldn’t have survived if it didn’t have value. From my perspective, that’s quite an achievement.” Yet Marvin also emphasized that what makes this accomplishment even more valuable is how the core has persevered even as we’ve added new features. “What we didn’t have twenty years ago was a comprehensive writing and speaking program. Now we have that. We’ve maintained the foundation of WR 1 and 2, while developing and implementing the Hume Center, LSP, SOAR, the Career Track for lecturers (2012), the NSC (2013), NCR (2020), our administrative oversight of WIM and Bing Honors College–in addition to all of that, we’ve welcomed the Oral Communication Program and the Stanford Storytelling Project into PWR. Maintaining the core and gradually extending it are both important. I’m proud we’ve maintained the core, and perhaps prouder that we’ve expanded what we do without sacrificing our core commitment to writing. As I said to Wendy…I don’t think people always understand how remarkable this is.” She replied, wisely, “Don’t let your awareness of the issues blind you to what’s remarkable about this.” 

In thinking about the kind of writing he values most now, I thought it significant that Marvin especially emphasized the structure we see in our strongest student RBAs. Ideally, our students would be a little like a “power-strips,” with an “abundance of inputs” for different appliances all devoted to achieving a shared purpose. “We don’t want an RBA that’s made of legos,” says Marvin, but rather “an RBA that’s about dense human connection, that’s made of fields of linguistic force, and human motive and commitment. A good RBA isn’t assembled out of inert pieces. It finds a way to bring forces together through language. What could be more important in teaching than that? Language is the field we use to bring all these forces together. That’s why our courses should be at the center of things, not on the periphery.” Incidentally, Marvin notes this is also why grad students with one week of training should not be teaching our courses. “Every assignment you write, you’re building a world. And that world is made up of countless relationships, all enacted in language. If students really believed this, they’d all major in rhetoric.”

Finally, to help Marvin celebrate his Dinkelspiel Award, and in appreciation for his many contributions to the Newsletter over the years, we are officially launching a dedicated column for Marvin this quarter, called The Marvin Quadrant. You can read the first installment here. A huge congrats, Marvin, on behalf of the Newsletter for your well-deserved Dinkelspiel Award! You are a gift to PWR and to the people—the community—whose honor it is to revise and continually reinvent it with you. 

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