The Art of the Tangent

Recently, due to a scheduling glitch, I exchanged my daytime teaching load for night classes.  Adjusting to my new routine, I developed an appreciation for caffeine and sugar. These traditional mainstays of the educator’s diet succored my stamina, but also primed me with palaver.  I confess, from my lesson plans I did digress, on occasion reprising the off-topic tendencies of my 8th grade shop teacher, who, instead of demonstrating the drill press, preferred telling stories of drill press accidents and other unpleasantries meant to raise the eyebrows of his adolescent audience.  The result was an intriguing foray into the art of the tangent.

Now, before any curriculum curmudgeons put my pedagogy on parole, let me posit that tangents, like red wine, offer benefits when used in moderation.  When students see a teacher toying with a tangent—in a sense, taking creative license with the organizing principle of the lesson plan—they in turn feel more willing to take creative license with their writing, making connections they might not otherwise.  Moreover, tangents possess an entertaining quality which can evoke curiosity.  Like pushing the pedal to the metal on a 1964 Pontiac GTO, and boosting the acceleration with nitrous oxide, you’re not sure where things might lead—a fiery end, perhaps, but that blinding flash might just signal an epiphany.

Aspiring tangentialists will find that stories from their pre-teaching employment can offer a rich trove of source material.  Students who believe that we entered the classroom like Athena sprung from the head of Zeus, fully armed with rhetoric and dry erase markers, express surprise upon discovering that we once worked in food service and retail.  For my students, surprise mixes with astonishment when I tell them my 1984 food service wages:  $3.15 an hour.  Students gasp when they do the math.

“You mean you only made 25 dollars after an 8 hour day?”

“That’s right,” I say.  “Before taxes.”

These numbers give me some street cred, which I milk for dramatic effect, adding in details with which I hope my audience might sympathize.  I tell them of my struggle with the soft serve machine and how my boss yelled when I made the portions too large.  Then, the groundwork thusly in place, I deliver the key point:  my life, just like my students’, involved suffering.  The humanizing power of this revelation renders me more approachable.  Like a platoon who knows the scars on their sergeant’s cheek come from dangers faced and mastered, the class gains a sense of camaraderie.  Plus, students experience a feel-good optimism, which arises when they learn my fast food career was only temporary, and my subsequent job, at a supermarket, paid better.

“How much did you make then?” they ask.

“$4.25 an hour,” I beam.

In addition to work experience, aspiring tangentialists can mine their scholastic history for source material. Here, let me offer a word of caution:  if you wax rhapsodic about how you wowed the MLA with your post-modern, post-structural, and post-relevant approach to discourse theory, you will inspire only glazed eyes and drooping jaws.  Such tales might regale the regents at Yale or Harvard, but won’t gain much traction among students who enrolled in your class to meet the GE pattern requirement.  Rather, an academic-sourced tangent should, in the parlance of our students’ subculture, “get real.”  Often this means divulging our academic failures as much as our success.  In my own case, students learn that my scholastic closet contains a few skeletons—such as the one bearing the scarlet letter “E” (for “expulsion”) dating back to the time I got kicked out of high school.  At first, eyebrows raise and foreheads crinkle as students engage in the mental machination of picturing their respectable professor as a miscreant youth.  Then students grasp the relevance of the story.  I tell them how I refused to let failure define me, but, like them, attended community college, which laid the path toward my future profession.

This tale of transformation resonated especially with students like Polly, a 40-year-old recovering alcoholic who confided to me that she felt ashamed of her life, because she faced not only the embarrassment of living with her parents for economic reasons, but also the discomfort of sitting in class surrounded by students young enough to call her “mom.”

“Your story made me feel more comfortable about my own mess-ups,” she told me after class.  “Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much how others judge me.”

Polly went on to use anecdotes from her alcoholic years as powerful supporting details in her essays.

Truth be told, not every tangent to which I subjected my night classes achieved success. Some, like a nitrous injected Pontiac GTO, crashed and burned.  But—isn’t that like writing itself?  Not all our ideas lead to epiphanies, nor do all our sentences merit a place among T.S. Eliot’s touchstones of the Western Tradition.  Nevertheless, we pursue our work as if they might, because at its essence writing is an art, and art requires play and a willingness to explore odd connections.  So, too, the Art of the Tangent.  If you worry how its pursuit might affect your reputation, fear not!  According to Rate My Professor, my reputation remains intact—not bad for a guy who got kicked out of high school and made $3.15 an hour flipping burgers. . . but, I digress.


dsc00559Sean Stratton teaches composition at Chaffey College.  He thinks that baby animal calendars are dangerous because they exploit the human affinity for pathos and place a cuddly veneer on what is actually a destructive societal fascination with selfish youth.


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