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What Writing Classes Do Not Teach Us

After reading Dan Green’s thoughts on Stanley Fish’s thought experiment, I started recalling my own writing undergraduate classes (none of which I received an A in).

A professor of mine once lamented about how lack of direct experience prevented students from writing convincingly. He once suggested (half in jest, obviously) that all students be required to kill a small animal (“nothing too big… a chicken will do”) before writing any college papers.

I never thrived in college writing classes. Teachers spent too much time analyzing the logic and organization behind essays, expecting us to follow the examples of the masters. The result (for me) was often a stilted, overorganized mess.

On the other hand, when classes outside the English dept. gave interesting topics to write about, I did fine. Composition teachers have two opposing challenges when inspiring students to write good things:

  1. not unduly limiting their range of topics. If you asked a class of college freshmen to write 8-10 page essays about a subject they didn’t care about (say, Shakespeare’s Henry II), I doubt they will do anything more than regurgitate criticism by others.
  2. leading the students toward topics that are meaningful and relevant to them. That involves bridging the generation gap between teacher and student and letting students use the topic as a starting point, not an ending point.

Writing teachers may have unrealistic expectations about the students’ ability to write analytically or intensively. That sort of writing requires careful control over logic and organization, but in undergraduate years, extensive writing (i.e., throwing out thoughts about a literary work without close textual analysis) is a more realistic and attainable goal. Instead of requiring a 3-5 page or 4-6 or 8-10 page essays, a teacher needs to devise compelling pretexts for writing (responding to a blog post, for example!) and helping students to understand the choices writers make beforehand about audience and style.

Some demystification about the writing process is in order. Taking a PE class doesn’t make a person athletic; it shows how fitness is a matter of practice and discipline and overall understanding of the workout process. Writing, like calisthenics is an iterative process; students benefit by seeing how their viewpoint of their own work changes ever time they see it, how multiple reading illuminates deficiencies. A good part of writing is just knowing which equipment can be tossed off the boat without undermining its seaworthiness.

Feedback from other students also helps. Creative writing classes (and feedback from classmates) provide a clue about which techniques worked and which were just heavy-handed attempts to sound eloquent. Workshop settings also revealed how widely styles and viewpoints diverge in a single classroom. That opened up my eyes. Seeing mistakes in the works of your peers is reassuring and ultimately constructive. By first diagnosing writing problems in a classmate, you develop a better knack for diagnosing your own writing problems.

When in undergraduate creative writing classes, I was sick of stories about college students and preferred characters whose scope extended outside the classroom. Now in my later years of senility, I find not only that nostalgia brings me back to characters from those years, but also a conviction that my ability to survive that period makes me better able to write convincingly about it.

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