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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

File Under Unsurprising

Posted by Sean McCann on 05/05/05 at 05:29 AM

So, the new essay component of the SAT looks not quite what it was promised to be. This is not exactly a shock.  I spent some time teaching composition in a large public university system that made heavy use of mass administered entrace exams.  I wouldn’t say they served no purpose, but their relation to the teaching of good writing was at best tangential, or maybe prefatory.  That at least one SAT critic has mastered the ability “to guess the correct grade by . . . [the] bulk and shape” of an essay brought a little Proustian thrill of remembrance to me.  When I was learning how to teach composition, we used to call this “holistic grading.” Not quite throwing the papers down a set of stairs to see where they land.  But not far enough off either.

Being very lucky indeed, I now teach at the kind of place populated by nth degree black belts of the SAT.  So I have the good fortune of worrying about the unintended consequences of the new exam.  My students are brilliant, but with precious few exceptions I wouldn’t say they arrive with finely honed writing skills.  I shudder to think about a new generation of kids who have spent hours mastering the ability to write long, empty essays full of big words and mistaken “facts.” (Don’t say it, John Bruce!  If you’re out there, I know a witty reply is bubbling on your lips.  Spare me, please.)

Even with these fabulous students, I find teaching writing immensely difficult--like teaching someone to dance.  The boxstep is more or less easy.  But after that there’s so many, myriad components of craft and talent involved that it seems impossible to systematize.  Every case is different, and the only method is to pay attention and do it over and over again.  The terrible thing is that for students who love to write and want to be good at it, this is all hugely rewarding.  For others, though, I sometimes suspect it’s like being initiated into a weird fraternity whose rules are completely arbitary.  There are those great moments when things click, but more often there’s slogging. 

In darker moments I think, you can’t really teach writing; you can only aspire to be its Zen master.  Am I wrong?  I’m curious to know. 


Comments

Henry James’ The Art of Fiction seems essential here…

By on 05/05/05 at 11:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, you’re onto something that is very important:

We cannot teach writing.

Teachers who try to teach it, actually end up doing for students. We can teach that writing, among all its other qualities, is useful for its “deferral of meaning.”

I think, to follow Friere, that writing is always about a doing with. Teachers of writing and rhetoric are always in the midst of things in the classroom, and should never be “at the front.”

Two essays I have both my creative and comp writers read:
Harry Mathews “For Prizewinners” (available in The Case of the Perservering Maltese: Collected Essays on Dalkey Archive Press)
Thomas Kent “Paralogic Rhetoric” (available in Rhetoric and Composition as Intellectual Work on Southern Illinois UP)

Thanks for the good reading.

By Gary Norris on 05/05/05 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The idea that, in effect, they’re just grading for length — that’s pretty lame. But the complaints about letting students get away with factual errors are off-base. It’s a lot easier to teach somebody that Anna Karenina is not a comedy (and was not written by Joseph Conrad, who was not French) than it is to teach them how to compose a good argument.

(Of course, from the undergraduate papers I’ve seen, if they were grading them on their ability to compose an argument, there’d be a lot fewer high grades...)

By David Moles on 05/05/05 at 07:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nobody has said it yet, so I will.  The best teachers are other writers through their writings.  This means lots and lots of reading.  If I meet someone who wants to write, I tell them, read everything you can get ahold of.  Once you’ve been doing that a while, take a closer, structural look at what your favorites did.  Eventually you have to try writing, but reading is the first step. 

I’ve actually come to believe writing is reading in reverse.

By on 05/07/05 at 02:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I disagree with you slightly, Anthony.  Reading carefully is certainly one component of learning to write, but another, perhaps more important component is having your writing read carefully and critically by someone who knows what she’s doing. 

Part of knowing what you’re doing as a teacher is being humble enough to back away and let the student figure certain things out: the zen master.  Then there’s a refereeing component to teaching, but it doesn’t take the students very far past learning what they can’t get away with.

By Jackmormon on 05/07/05 at 01:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I hope you’ll pardon my tone in disagreement.  But this “zen master” claim is non-sense.

Writing is a positive (public) communicative act.  It is not transcendent, nor is it free.  It is pragmatic; it is hermeneutic.  It is highly organized and ultimately social.  It is also corrective, almost utopian, in its desire to set the record straight or illustrate even the most fictive social and cultural landscapes.

In Vipassana or Zen meditiation, a monk meditates to transcend impression--studies what the mind and body has to give during a period of time and watches it go away.  Writers embrace language and impression and make it objectively there.  The ego is problematized through writing in that it looks out for the face of the other (readers) to fortify the image of the self.

This takes others, but not teachers.  Whereas I can teach my undergrads rhetoric (what does it take to move from stasis to a reasonable claim to a reasonable belief or doubt, for example,) I cannot teach them to be good writers.  I argue that I best not teach them to be good.  I better teach them to write, to write more often, to write out of the occassion.  There is a big difference.  Because I publish doesn’t mean I have anything to give my students as writers.  Because I study rhetoric doesn’t mean I have something, anything to say to them that is meaningful.  And we know how many poor writers teach writing.  My knowledge is only as useful as their writing community is strong, active, and open to controversy.

Teachers are facilitators in the writing community, not coaches and not leaders.  Yet, we do coach and lead; we even dictate and punish at times.  Teachers (and this is Friere) must give up authority to encourage students to work and ask engaging questions for themselves.  Learning to ask engaging questions is one significant step to learning to write clear and precise sentences, which is a significant step towards learning to build strong communities.  The last thing I want my students to do is to write something knowing it will be for me to find the strength in their compositions.  I work *with* them; they write *with* us all.  Nobody is doing *for*.  Writing is not some charity in which giving is presented in the exchange of papers--papers that act as commodities that are evaluated after the exchange by a more or less disengaged third party (the teacher.) Writing *for* is anti-democratic because it always assumes that the author is in the position of power, and we know (read your Adam Smith, for example, on the corruption of moral sentiments, or Marx, or Simmel, or Horkheimer, or Adorno) that we afford specific kinds of people power simply because of their social rank.  Teachers should not benefit from that social corruption.  In fact, we should actively dispossess ourselves of such free gifts. 

Anyhow, students (once encouraged) do know their strengths; it is their writing.  We use the community in the classroom to workshop together.  I merely keep things rolling.

Certainly I evaluate work.  In this way I do have some authority.  Most composition, creative writing, and rhetoric profs and teachers who believe they know what’s best for students are the worst teachers.  They are dictators of truth and slaves to textbooks.  Or, they follow noodles like Peter Elbow.  The extremes are teaching rhetoric as if it were concrete and not transformable or teaching writing as if we simply invent what we write.  Writing is utterly transformative and never invented.  It is highly structured (language), therefore closed to some extent.  It is always public, always open (to interpretation.)

Meaning is always deferred.  The writing itself creates that void--a space in which meaning can be developed through conversation (a discourse) about the work itself and its contents.

The zen master symbol for writing teachers develops the wrong idea.  Zen masters have much more presence than a writing teacher does in almost every way.  With Zen, there is no letting the student figure things out.  There is purposeful guidance involved in both arts.  Both are a vigorous (public) yet peaceful (private) engagement with their art for a human purpose.

I do like your last statement because it points out the flaw in teaching writing the way that most folks have been hinting.  Students learn to work a structured syste (therefore they reinfore it) rather than how to use the syste (to destabilize it.) In other words, the students remain oppressed by rhetoric than learn how to be free with it, to exercise (check out the latin meaning,) to work out of the constraints and into a community.  Writing should be a liberating process not a hassle, not a bucket of rules, not a classroom with a teacher who knows more than the students about the proper structures.

And one last thing about teachers:  I do believe that writing teachers should be proven writers.  Not necessarily widely published; but active writers.  Most comp/rhet highschool and college teachers become comfortable in their careers.  I regularly present at conferences.  The panels concerning rhet/comp are always (always always always) the least educated and knowledgable about the rhetoric and theory they are speaking about.  They tend to be hacks.  And this is unfortunate.  It is incredibly embarrassing to listen to a teacher talk about theory and rhetoric yet not know what he or she is talking about.  Of course, they use the crappy skills they teach their students to write their articles.  By properly incorporating cited material from experts quoting experts into their essays, they sound like they know what they are writing about, therefore sound like they are critically engaged.

rustle any feathers?  just looking for conversation.  I have had enough of the zen master nonsense.

By Gary Norris on 05/08/05 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I imagine the hardest part of teaching writing is teaching revision.  Not editing like so many of my peers seem to think revision means, but re-seeing what is on the page, then honing till the meaning is clear.  There is a huge difference between what was intended and what is actually on the page.  I may think this way since this revelation, what it meant to revise, was the single biggest factor to improve my own writing.

It may well require more time than the classroom system as it stands will permit.  I tend to have to shelve stories and essays for a few months so my eyes won’t see what I expect and see only what is there.  This reason alone has much to do with why I have not yet started my own blog.

The timeliness here reminds me of newspaper reporting, and like I told a journalist girlfriend of mine some time ago, journalism is to writing what arithmetic is to mathematics.  She used to get so mad at me that I wasn’t in a hurry to publish.

By on 05/08/05 at 01:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Gary, you may well know better than me about this stuff, but let me clear up about one thing.  When I said zen master, I didn’t mean the phrase very seriously.  It was a joke.  What I did mean is that writing can’t be taught very easily.  You can engage in long-term dialogue with students of the sort you describe, and you can model examples of good work and behavior.  But you can’t create imitable programs that will allow people to become good or even decent writers in x number of steps.

I do think, btw, that your description is indeed a bit “utopian.” What you don’t mention about writing is how much of it is inspired by the desire to mislead, manipulate, abuse, confuse, deceive, harass, castigate, embarrass, etc.  This is indeed all public in a way, but not necessarily all good.

By on 05/08/05 at 10:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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