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Prof. Bernard (ENG): Practicing What He Preaches

by Matt Girolami '13

If you’re an English literature student at F&M, you’ve likely encountered Professor Patrick Bernard, whether through his American modernism or specialized African and African-American literature courses. Though he is busy preparing an American postmodern literature course, Bernard was kind enough to talk to me about both his own writing process and what he expects of his students.

First, “I practice what I preach,” says Bernard. A devout process writer, he encourages various drafting techniques, such as tree-diagrams, lists, or arrows—whatever works. “I begin by brainstorming within myself—talking, reading, note-taking—it is a messy stage,” he says as he picks up a cluttered legal pad sitting atop a stack of books, to reveal his practice. Bernard also denies his writing distinct “revising,” which he describes as more of a constant process while writing, not a separate stage in the journey. Bernard deems any draft that is added to or subtracted from as part of “rewriting,” which “has so many drafts—three, four, 11—that you don’t want to know.” 

Seeing that Bernard practices what he preaches, he doesn’t believe that there is a difference between what students and professors write; despite age differences, he believes every student can add to academic conversation: “First-year seminar students may not be a part of the academic conversation because they do not care, but there is the option to influence them,” says Bernard. He remarks that the primary way to invite students into the conversation is through counterargument: “if the counterarguments are not there, then the whole is lacking. It loses its argument—[and becomes] just analysis." He states that the purpose of the argument is to “advance what is in the articles and test their own ideas. To exist as part of the conversation.”

This discussion led to further talk of lessons that he teaches his students and that he himself follows—most notably that an essay is like a house, and the writer is the realtor, not only leading the reader through the house but selling it to them, as well. “An essay is like a house: a house has different rooms, and rooms have different identities. A paragraph is another word for a room—the house is the thesis, the rooms the paragraphs, the furniture the evidence—I can’t expect to see a car in the kitchen,” says Bernard. If there is a quotation in a paragraph, it should belong there, and its purpose should be proven. But if there is indeed a car in the kitchen, as an expert realtor, tell Bernard why it’s there so he won’t get confused--it may make things interesting! Bernard’s house model even gets into the specificities of transitions and the sequence of ideas as he asks his students to think of organizational devices as, “walls, doorways, and hallways as well.”

To take the metaphor a bit further, one can posit that a house—like an essay—belongs to a specific architectural convention--or conversation. Thus, in order to  belong, the architect must adhere to the design vocabulary of whichever style of house being built—that is, in order for a saltbox house to be a saltbox house, it needs certain elements that will distinguish it from a Cape Cod, for example. Precedence and evidence work in a similar way in a paper: if one is writing on postmodern literature, one needs to use the language of a postmodern literature scholar. Again, a paper is not just a single paper, but a contribution to a legacy, to a conversation. 

  • Profile: Dr. Patrick S. Bernard
  • matt girolami