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Confessions of a College Writing Instructor

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.” (Oscar Wilde)

I taught my first college composition class in the spring semester of 1980. I was a graduate student in English Literature at Brown University, and teaching composition was one of my responsibilities as a graduate fellow.

Many aspects of that experience were rather stressful. Among them were that I was one third my present age and didn’t know very much, I was a little unsure if I belonged in a high-powered graduate program at all, the textbook for the course I was teaching had been written by my graduate advisor (to whom I reported weekly), and most of my students had come from old, established prep schools and seemed already to be better educated than I was.

Forty years later I am still teaching college composition courses, but most of those early-career stressors have given way to different concerns. Among them are that the meaning of literacy has changed since I was a young man who yearned to be “a man of letters,” and I am increasingly unsure of what the young people who sit before me in class need to know of reading and writing moving into whatever brave new world awaits them after graduation. And now, of course, we are all waiting out this siege by a new biological foe while the economy we had a few weeks ago crashes down around us. But most of us will get through this, and then we will have to forge our new lives in whatever world is operating when we emerge from this siege.

I imagine that literacy, as we have known it since Gutenberg, will continue to morph into something like a semiotics of mixed media: text, still images, and streaming media, and I am guessing that skilled readers and writers of text will be needed and wanted by many kinds of institutions and enterprises when we break the siege of this virus. It is in that spirit that I wish to pass on some of the insights into reading and writing gained over a so-far forty-year teaching career.

Reading and Writing Are Hella Hard to Do Good

(Reading and Writing Are Difficult Skills to Master)

The first thing that must be faced is that reading and writing are difficult. They both take a lot of our personal bandwidth. We are born to talk, if you believe Chomsky and Company (which I do), but we must struggle mightily to read and write. Most of us are forced into learning these skills when we are still too young to put up much real resistance, and I reckon that is a good thing.

Most everyone in a given language group is taught to extract the same basic information from any given text, but the texts we encounter vary spectacularly in their subject matter and complexity, so beyond a fairly elementary level, more and different reading skills are required to extract the information encoded in them.

I believe that most of the reading experience is subjective, and therefore individual, so after the elementary grades, we really teach ourselves to read increasingly complex texts by constantly connecting any new information they present with the information that we have previously gained and stored.

Our teachers and instructors advise (or require) us to read certain texts, and they present us with information that they hope will help us incorporate the texts into our conscious lives, but they can only guess at what information will accomplish that magic or how best to present it. Ultimately we are the ones who will make the necessary connections (or not), and it is an individual and mostly mysterious process that we use to make them.

Much has been written about reading and cognition, and my main goals in this essay concern writing, so I will just recommend Maryanne Wolf’s book, Proust and the Squid, to those who wish to find out more about reading and move on to some thoughts about writing.

Though most of us have, on some occasion, had our grammar corrected by an unpleasant person or marked up by an English teacher, and thus concluded that our English was somehow deficient, probably as the direct result of a blow to the head earlier in life or, more likely, some defect in our character, I am here to tell you that we are all masters of the language that was spoken to us and around us when we were infants, toddlers, and elementary students.

Our intuitive sense of grammar is nearly perfect, and we effortlessly construct sentence after sentence that has never been uttered before by any smiling anthropoid. We manage complex syntactic rules literally in our sleep, and expertly encode finely nuanced meanings in thousands of sentences every day. We are born to do these things, and unless we have a neural deficit, injury, or other malady, we do them almost perfectly.

These claims may surprise many readers; they may strike others as manifestly false because we all seem to know certain people who struggle to speak grammatically, or conversely, we know people who have huge vocabularies and always construct elaborate and powerful sentences that stand them apart as leaders in one thing or another.

Language learning and language acquisition have generated a vast literature over the centuries and, unsurprisingly, diverse and sometimes conflicting opinions have arisen concerning these processes. My intentions here are to make some recommendations concerning the writing process, and the limited scope of this essay makes it inevitable that some, perhaps many, of my claims will seem sweeping, cavalier, and just plain wrong to some readers, but bear with me because this is about improved performance, which can be achieved even with incomplete theoretical grounding.

To return to the discrepancies in language facility noted in the second paragraph previous to this, I will claim that the supposed differences we observe in individual expression are matters of style. Those who have large vocabularies, or who skillfully embed multiple clauses in their expressions have devoted time and effort to learning a literary or rhetorical style in addition to the style of language spoken to them as toddlers.

People who have acquired such skills have done so for any number of reasons, most of them connected with educational, social, or economic goals, but their having done so does not signify that others, who have not acquired that style are somehow linguistically deficient.

Even if you think that I am wrong on this point, I am going to ask you to assume it as a theoretical stance a fortiori, as philosophers say, in pursuit of helpful conclusions about producing quality writing.

“We Live Alone in the House of the Heart”

(Brian Doyle)

My overall conclusion (and this regards the epigraph quoted from Wilde) is that, beyond the level of forming letters into words and then concatenating words into subject-verb-object sentences (second or third grade), writing cannot be taught; it can only be learned.

What do I mean by that? I mean that anyone can presume to be your teacher and go through various machinations in support of this presumption, but only you can learn. Others can assign you this or that writing task, or this or that text to read, but you teach yourself what you reckon to be requisite for completing the tasks.

And this accounts for the apparent disparity in respective individual’s ability to manipulate language. Some people have shined their inborn language light in one direction, and others have shined it in another. And so they each have gone to some private place: some to the river, some to the mountains, and some to the sea.

Now, which of these destinations is better than another, or best of all, is an axiological question rather than a linguistic one. Is Standard American English better or worse than Oxbridge? Is it better or worse than Appalachian English? Opinions will certainly differ here, and I doubt there is any satisfactory way of arriving at a definitive ranking.

Most of these observations concern spoken language, but closely related arguments might be offered concerning writing. The Americans, the Canadians, The British, and the Australians (to name just a few English-writing countries) all have various spellings, idiomatic expressions, and even grammatical features that are standard in their own group, but nonstandard (or wrong) in the others.

An example of divergent grammar might be certain differences in American and British plurals. An American might write, “Ford has announced three new light truck models for this fall” while a British publication might write, “Ford have announced three new light truck models for this fall.” Subject-verb agreement being a very prominent feature of English (and almost every other modern language) you would think that the Yanks and the Brits might at least agree on the difference between one and many, but they do not.

Again, any claims of superiority of one nation’s English over another’s would seem provincial or even jingoistic to anyone with any sort of cosmopolitan presumptions or aspirations. Such claims are axiological, not linguistic.

So, It’s All Good, Right? It’s All Love!

This is not an argument for “anything goes in the Wild West media landscape of the twenty-first century,” but it is an argument for the central role of style in writing (as well as most everything else that we do).

The essays that I have asked students to write in college classes over the past forty years have most often been analytical or argumentative in some respect, and many of them have asked for some response to a text of some kind. They have been “college essays,” and I have tried to instruct the students to write them in what you might call Standard American Academic Style, though that pigeonhole is a little small, evoking visions of endless sentences made of impenetrable jargon.

This Standard American Academic Style has consanguinities with the true idiom of most young people, but it is a not used in many households where there are few or no members actively involved with higher education or a certain approach to national and global affairs. It is not the natural idiom of everyday commerce or most popular entertainment, so it is an alien style to a significant number of people (the percentage varies with a region’s demographics).

Whether what I am describing is good or bad for our collective futures is again an axiological question rather than a linguistic one, so I will not venture an opinion except to say that where I teach (the Bay Area of California) Standard American Academic Style is used by fewer students as time goes on.

As I am an old Boomer, as are many still teaching in and administering the colleges and universities around here, I try to encourage students to write in this style because that is the way it has been done throughout my whole life (and for the past century and a half), not because I think this style is intrinsically better or more correct though it is certainly better for some things.

I’m Very Impressed with All of Your Philosophical Bullcrap, But How Do I Write Better?

All of this is to preface my claim that most of you who have been convinced by your teachers, or your inner nay-sayers, that you are not very good writers have simply not taken to, for whatever reason, this Standard American Academic style that I have been describing. And that being the case, you have probably been unmotivated to find or develop a style that suits your purposes better because you have been convinced (wrongly I think) that there is only one best style to write, and you don’t do it well enough.

So here is what you can do (and I mean you) to write hella good stuff. The first thing is to kick up your reading regime like this:

  • Read! It all begins there. All good writers, and by “all” I mean “all,” are big readers. There may be physiological reasons for this: the neural mechanisms for reading and writing may be related or identical, or it may just be that a certain fascination with words defines both readers and writers; I’m not sure, and it doesn’t really matter, but if you want to improve your writing, you must spend more time reading.
  • Read in a variety of subjects, genres, and eras to find out what kinds of things are possible in writing.
  • Identify a writer who seems to be writing specifically to you, and when you read their work, echo the thoughts (in your consciousness) in your own words as you go. The style this writer uses should be your go-to style (after this list, I will suggest ways to achieve it).
  • Identify other writers whose work you admire whether or not it seems to have been written specifically for you.
  • Read some 18th and 19th century English and American novels to expand your vocabulary. There are many great ones, but you can start with names such as Swift, Defoe, Eliot, Dickens, Poe (short fiction), and James.

The next step is to write. Crazy, right? Look at it this way; if you wanted to improve your free-throw percentage in basketball, you could watch videos or actual college and pro games to see how it is done by the best, but then you would have to stand at the line yourself and shoot some to see how you do it. The goal, then, would be to blend the way you shoot into the way a high-percentage shooter shoots, and thereby raise your percentage using your own powers. That is the template I am suggesting for this writing endeavor, and here are the specific steps:

  • Read extensively and choose a few things that you admire, and whose style you would like to acquire.
  • Choose a one or two-page text or section of a longer text and read it three times carefully, ensuring that you know the meaning of every word and the significance of every reference.
  • Set the text aside for at least twenty-four hours without looking at it (after a few tries, you can adjust this wait time to suit yourself).
  • After your waiting interval, take pen in hand (or keyboard) and without looking at the original, write it word-for-word to the best of your ability.
  • After you have finished your text, make a side-by-side comparison with the original.
  • Make notes on your version of parts that you recreated to your satisfaction.
  • Make other notes on your version of areas where your text differed in its content from the original.
  • Make notes on your version evaluating the differences you noted in the last step. Do you think that they detract from the quality of your text? Do your changes retain the good qualities of the original? Do your changes improve upon the original?
  • Repeat this process with other texts you wish to emulate until you find that your evaluations of the changes noted in your text are mostly positive. This will indicate that you are producing the desired style, or one commensurate with it.

This process is based on one advocated by Benjamin Franklin (yeah, the one on the hundred), and it requires the help of no one; you can do it completely on your own terms and in your own time, but if you wish to recruit a partner in the process, or even a small cadre of friends, you certainly can do that.

This process will make you into the writer you would like to be, if you let it work, and the way you do that is to be patient and consistent.

As the ever-philosophical Mr. Trump asks, “What the hell have you got to lose?

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