Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Teaching writing vs. learning ballet

I had a cup of coffee and an hour’s conversation with an artistic friend, Leslie M., in Andover, Massachusetts yesterday. Leslie has been the head of the Andover Cultural  Council for a number of years. I figure her to be much more a diplomat than I am, so I asked her to consult with me about how to get the word out about my book and my method. (In a few words, Leslie is both generous and intelligent. I want to get that said immediately.)

We met in the Caffe Nero, a high-ceiling place decorated with old books and wooden tables. The coffee was tasty. Anyway, it was a fun conversation. Leslie had never heard of the method, and she didn’t say if she’d ever taught college writing, so I don’t think she has. Her son, though, is a professor in a fine arts field in a Catholic University somewhere in the U.S., and she reported that he has been groaning about the poor quality of the student papers he gets:

“He doesn’t assign many papers, but he does assign a few. He’s been telling me they’re terrible, and I thought he was exaggerating, but one day he was home and left a pile of papers somewhere and I looked into them and I saw, my God, he’s right.”

So I said to her, “Leslie, that’s my market. There are tens of thousands of professors out there who are either teaching Writing 101 courses, or else reading terrible papers submitted after students have taken such courses. These are the people feeling the pain. Most administrators, like heads of English departments, are resigned to the current situation, and not in active pain. They hear about the terrible writing, but most are not down there in the mud trying to fix it.

“So the market for this method is the people who are feeling the pain. That would be the students, who of course do not want to be terrible writers. They wish they could write good, they just can’t figure out how. And the instructors are the key audience. They feel the most pain because they know it’s fairly simple to write well, but they’re stuck with methods that don’t work with today’s students and progress is very slow.”

I asked her for advice, and she said, “People never like to be told they’re doing things all wrong.”

Now I know that, in theory, but I don’t think about it often, because in fact some open-minded folks are okay with being corrected.  Her comment reminded me of a fact I often forget about–that people are defensive.  I responded as best I could.

“Well, it’s not like people are doing things all wrong,” I said. “I’m not saying that and it’s not true. Many writing teachers are doing things quite well.  Some talk a lot about active verbs. Many of them probably give great coaching advice in individual sessions. The problem is not that they’re doing things wrong, it’s the usual course arrangement makes them inefficient. It’s a huge problem that students come in with very different kinds of preparation. You have people who would never leave a fragment on a page, and other kids who really think a fragment is some kind of sentence.  How do you teach in that situation?”

“I look at what the Army does, and it’s interesting. The Army takes in recruits and it used to take in draftees and it trains them to use a rifle properly and skillfully in eight weeks in Basic Training. The Army doesn’t separate out the country boys who’ve been shooting squirrels since the age of 10 from the pale city boys who have never seen a firearm before, and give them two different courses of training. The Army makes the assumption that no recruit knows anything about firearms. It trains them all from the ground up. This is the end of the rifle that shoots, these are the names of the different parts, this is how you take it apart and clean it and put it together, here is how you adjust the sights, squeeze the trigger, hit the target. And on and on.”

“Even though it’s not true that everyone comes in ignorant, that’s the best assumption to make if you want to train everybody.”

I went on and on and she listened generously like the fine human being she is.

“I’m not saying that teachers are doing everything wrong, but I am saying it’s very ineffective try to build on what kids learned in high school. Some have learned a lot, and some nothing. You can’t build on what they know. That’s the big conceptual mistake too many people are making. Far better to do it the Army way, and to assume that no one knows anything about the topic of writing, and to build the skill from the ground up. That’s what my course does. That’s why I get such great results.”

“And we start our writing training with the concrete noun because it’s a great starting point, where everyone is equal. When I tell students Write with things you can drop on your foot, everybody is equal because everybody has a foot. The lousy writers like it because they can do it. It’s so simple. The good writers like it because it’s so unusual and no one has ever asked them to do it before. Even though it’s a weird way to start a course on writing, it’s interesting and everyone gets engaged with it.”

Leslie said, “I remember when I took ballet when I was a little girl. I thought I was going go up on the stage and just dance and be beautiful. But all they let me do was stand in place and point my toes a certain way, over and over again. It went on for six months, and I kept wondering when are we going to dance? This isn’t dancing!

“You were learning the sub-skill,” I said. “It was going to be combined with other stuff and become dancing later on.”

“Right!  And I didn’t understand why they weren’t teaching me to dance.”

“You hit it,” I said. “That’s the perfect example. That’s exactly what we’re doing, we’re teaching the sub-skills first, and frustrating them deliberately. We’re not letting them write thesis-organized papers until they have the basics down cold. We’re making them point their toes right until they’re sick of it.”

It was a great conversation with Leslie M, and I felt supported in quite a nice way. I left her with a copy of the CWG and mailed one off to her son, the professor. We agreed to talk again about the problem of getting people to try out something that is so different from the conventional way things are done.

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