Editor’s Note: This post first appeared January 17, 2011.
At the beginning of my teaching career, delighted by class discussion of readings, yet appalled by the quality of my students’ essays and unsure how to explain concepts that I had assumed were intuitive to young writers, I set about grimly, devising a means of teaching them, these embodiments of the “crisis in literacy,” casualties of the Reagan era, MTV addicts, as I often heard them described in faculty meetings, calibration sessions, and the mail room. The most logical method to me was the sentence-level approach. I assumed that a good essay began with sound sentences and a rigid form. I taught accordingly and with the tenacity of a pit bull. My students would take diagnostic tests on grammar at the beginning of the term. They would perform drills and take more tests until they reached a level of proficiency. Classes on writing the essay would begin with instruction on how to write the first sentence of the essay, how to create common ground with a reader, how to state a sound thesis, and later how to create unity, development, and coherence. In fact, I often gave students step-by-step instructions on how to proceed with the whole assignment. Leaving these people to their own devices, I felt, yielded products that I would be incapable of grading. Surprisingly, these methods were successful inasmuch as students learned what I taught–in fact many learned so well that they could master grammar tests and frame their essays just as I had insisted. Still, I was constantly frustrated by their inability to translate the grammar skills they had learned from the handbook into their own writing. They could make 100s on pronoun references tests yet write papers so confounded by “it” and “this” as to easily serve as Rorschach tests. They could define “unity,” “development,” and “coherence,” yet in practice, these terms often seemed synonymous, all meaning “to wear out a superficial idea in written form.” More depressing was the misery that essay-writing obviously caused them. Many otherwise bright and articulate students seemed unable to write anything other than cliches that they mistakenly believed I wanted to hear. Worse, they seemed to be practicing civil disobedience on the issue of global revision. And I had a nagging sense that the proficient writers leaving my classroom were the ones who had arrived that way. The others left stoically, impressively informed about their deficiencies, ready to tell their next instructors in robotic tones: “I don’t know how to develop.”
It was not overnight that I began to realize that just as my students failed to translate their knowledge about writing into their writing, I had failed to translate what I know about writing into my classes. Though I taught essays about marginalization, I had marginalized my own students and silenced their voices. Over time, as I relaxed my approach to local issues and determined to focus on voice and content first, with grammar and essay form taking their proper place as a means of better articulating ideas already formed, I began to see students significantly improve their writing by semester’s end.
The catalyst was an incident on the first day of a freshman composition class. I happened to ask my students: ‘what makes an essay ‘good'”? There was great irony in their response. Hands waved before I’d fully formed the question, and were the responses not voiced in such youthful tones, I’d swear I were in a calibration session: “Thesis statement!” said half the respondents, almost in unison. “Development!” said the rest. Not one student mentioned insight, interest, or a sense of discovery on the part of reader or writer. “It doesn’t really matter what you write,” one student said (after some assurance that honesty carried no penalty), “it’s that you have to do it right. If you have too many errors, you fail, no matter what you say.” Many others nodded sheepishly. I found the experience a sad one, given that no teacher or writer I know of got into the business out of appreciation for good grammar or the strong thesis statement. I determined to remember that “unity,” “coherence,” and “development” are a trinity of terms coined in the same spirit as the three-part psyche–to make tangible an abstract process that writers perform without realizing it because we are truly enraptured by an idea or an image or an experience. Thank God for these terms because they enable us to talk about the product. But overemphasizing them is a form of condescension. That is, one who knows employs it among those less fortunate, perhaps ensuring that they remain so. I began to believe to that if I focus on my students themselves, accompanying them wherever their own enthusiasm leads, then we find that the most important skill we all learn in a writing course is simply to tell the truth and to tell it well, to use all the tools at our disposal to make it clear, to make it stark. When I say, “Never sacrifice content to form,” (as I often do), I want my students to understand what I mean.
“Telling the truth” in the age of social epistemic rhetoric may sound a sacrilege, but I don’t intend it as a dismissal of social constructs–rather as the skill of being honest on paper. That which really is, in one’s reality, the way things are is so obscured in consumer culture that simply seeing it is a skill. In fact, I expect in a typical semester to encounter great resistance to the very idea of owning one’s reality. Half the class will stare at me blankly when I ask them to write for the first time, maybe for ten minutes, without stopping, about their best or worst experience in high school, even though I assure them that I won’t read the papers and I advocate cussing all over the page if it helps. They seem to think I’m laying a trap or that there’s a hidden camera. But, alas, I find in reading the final products later that most of their high schools there were hidden cameras.
photo credit: Mad African!