These are the
notes I used in preparing to talk to the English faculty--the talk for
which "Hasty Miscellany on Teaching
Writing" was the handout. I
later reduced them to a few lines on a 3x5 note card and talked mostly
extemporaneously. I can't possibly reconstruct the talk, but I'll
try to expand on these notes so maybe they'll make a bit of sense to
you. Someday maybe I'll get ambitious enough to start all over
and write what I think now about teaching and teaching writing, but
this is it for now.
original notes are in black
with green highlight and
my thoughts about them are in green. In the talk I was addressing
my colleagues. But now I'm talking to you, too.
Part 1. DISCLAIMER & REORIENTATION
not going to tell you
what I'm doing in English 111 because . . . you wouldn't understand and
would focus on surface details only
seems rather imperious, but I managed to soften it considerably without
changing the meaning.
understood--because I didn't grade any writings and at the end of the
course asked the students to recommend their own grades. That of
course meant that they had to justify the grades by referring to their
writings for the semester, so in the end almost everyone wrote a
thorough and logical analytical essay. I agreed with about 85% of
the students' recommendations over the 20-some years in which I used
this method and when I overruled a student, about half the time it was
to raise the grade.
You're almost certainly thinking this
guy is nuts! So
now you know why
I didn't want to say what I was doing. It was much more
complicated and effective than I can make it sound in a few
sentences. Or in a few days.
if you adopted what
I'm doing for yourself, it would be just as bad as any other false
course for you. Each of us has to find his own true course. No one
else's will do And besides, my own course is always changing, so before
you "got" it, it would already be different.
Here's another reason why I didn't want to talk about what I did in my
classes. It was what I
did. It worked well for me, but if someone else tried to use my
assignments they probably would have flopped, because they wouldn't be that teacher's assignments.
There would have been no inherent connection.
I WILL try to tell you
WHY I'm doing what I'm doing. It's going to be fragmented and messy
though, because I've been preoccupied with an ailing aged aunt--who was
learning to write at the same time that the Wright brothers were
learning to fly. She told me yesterday, "I don't believe in God any
more. I believe in Kevorkian."
I said that because I really wasn't very well organized--but also
because I hoped that what my aunt said might shock them into seeing
that how to teach writing well is not contained in any of the dogma of
the discipline. It was risky, of course, because they might just
go off thinking about life and death and sacrilege. But it really
got their attention--they stopped munching their lunches--and in fact
it seemed to get through to several of them.
I have lots of little
observations but they're unorganized. I haven't been able to find the
center of what I want to say.
I knew perfectly well what I wanted to say. The problem was
that-- well, Emily Dickinson pinned it down nicely in a poem:
all the Truth but tell it slant --
in Circuit lies
bright for our infirm Delight
Truth's superb surprise
Lightning to the Children eased
Truth must dazzle gradually
every man be blind --
I didn't have time for Circuit. So I was going to risk the
testimonial. OK, I'm here
to testify. (Are you a true believer?)
minutes--not enough time. 15 days, 15 weeks, even 15 years wouldn't be
enough to convince you of what I'm talking about--unless you already
agree with me.
talk fast and will
probably say things that you don't like.
I did and they didn't, most of
them. The department head had allotted 30 minutes, but I said 15
just because it tickled me that 15 is 51 backwards. It took
longer than 30 minutes, but they were polite
colleagues and stayed to the end.
several years I went
around talking to groups of writing teachers. But I cut it out because
usually there'd be one person who already know what I was going to say
and agreed with it. The others thought I was nuts and were offended by
was required as
part of a half-year grant from the National Endowment for the
Humanities. The grant gave me time to think about writing and
teaching and to develop a new freshman composition course. It was
administered by The Institute on Writing,at the University of
Iowa. (More about that later.)
talk is exactly the
opposite of what I normally do in teaching a course. I'll talk and
you'll listen. You'll be passive. So I'll be the only one learning
Ah. This is
one of the most important parts. Especially in a writing
course, having the teacher talk is not very helpful. What I did
instead was to write out anything I had to say in the form of a writing
assignment and then use the class time for the students to read and
discuss their own and each other's responses to the assignment.
let's get a few things
out in the open:
and documentation of how people write and how they can be helped to
write better. Not in teaching.
had been a lot
of talk about a revolution in the teaching of writing. But the
revolution was in the observation
of writers writing, not of teachers
teaching. I came back to this later on.
misunderstand each other.
Still and always
good advice. Phil Jackson used to wear this cap:
makes an Ass of u and me.")
almost all teachers assume that what they experienced as students was
good. Maybe it was good for them, but that's no guarantee
it would be good for all students. And in fact, it's clear that
are at least four different types of learning styles and that only one
or perhaps two of them match up well with the way most teachers teach.
But teaching is a self-selecting
occupation: Only those who do well in
school get to be teachers, so it's not surprising that teachers assume
that their learning and teaching preferences are "good" and the others
are not. People who learn best by doing things generally don't do
well in school and therefore don't get to be teachers. Nor do
those who learn best by talking, or by interacting with others.
guarantee that almost all
students will not succeed in the course. Only 7.5% succeed in mastering
the course. What if all students mastered the course? They'd all have
to get A's--and what would happen to us teachers? We'd have to answer
charges of grade inflation.
This refers to the
bell-shaped grading curve that many teachers say they don't adhere
to--but do. It was
originally presented as a description of grades. Typically, 7.5% of
students studied got A's or F's, 15% got B's or D's, and the rest got
century it has been
tantamount to a prescription,
and even now many schools press teachers to limit the number of A's to
that magic 7.5%.
But if the A grade indicates mastery of the course content, it follows
that 92.5% of all students
master the course.
That is, the school prevents
from mastering the course.
You probably don't want to think that's so. Okay, I concede that
a lot of students in a lot of schools don't try to get A's, don't try
to master the course content. Maybe half don't. Maybe three
quarters don't. Why don't they? Are they too stupid?
Do they want to flunk?
If you really believe that half or three fourths of all students
want to do badly in school--well, there are zillions of other websites
on the Internet. No need to waste your time on this one.
of my teachers wasted my
time, and at least half of them did much more harm than good.
talking about basic
principles. You're probably thinking about derivative details, surface
general what people don't
need is negative reinforcement. For example, if I say that you
don't have a chance of learning what I'm going to tell you today--well,
you won't. But if I say that it's going to be difficult, but that you
can learn it, then maybe you will.
not a very
good example. What I had in mind--and talked about at some length
later on--was that school dogma encourages teachers to give negative
feedback. More about this later on...
also generally don't
need instruction--to be given answers. Just the right question
now and then.
"revolution" in the
teaching of writing never happened. It was instead a revolution
study of the teaching of
writing. It was research, documentation of
what works and what doesn't.
Most of the early
research was done in Great Britain, by Benjamin Britton and others.
are NO basic writers in
colleges. They're all in kindergarten. Even our developmental
students are experts. Treat them accordingly. We're not
trying to make
them experts. We're trying to help them to become better experts.
Do you agree? If not, then try learning to write in some language
FORTRAN or C. Or Chinese. Then you'll be a basic writer for
Part 2. MY
EDUCATION: SIGNAL EVENTS
This is the heart of
what I said that day. The preceeding was, I hoped, an
introduction, a clearing of the air. In this part I tried to
describe experiences I had that caused me to work differently than my
Elementary, jr.h., h.s.:
Devoted school-mistress teachers. But mostly negative feedback. I
called an underachiever because I got high scores on some standardized
tests, but didn't get high grades in school. So the school kept
me that I was a failure.
Almost all of my
teachers devoted their lives to their students in a way that rarely
happens today because there are so many more opportunities for women
now. I'm sure they wanted us to do well, to succeed. And I
tried, at least some of the time, but for whatever reason I rarely
managed to do really well in school. My teachers kept telling
I wasn't working up to my ability, no doubt thinking that that would
encourage me to try harder, but it didn't help my morale much. My
grades were mostly
mediocre--meaning that I felt a failure. So the feedback was
Army: The only
consistently good school I attended. Mastery learning in basic training
and electronics school. Not just to pass the subject, but to master it.
Had most soldiers for only two or three years, couldn't afford to waste
talent. Therefore needed everyone to succeed, to master the subject. No
grades; either you had mastered the subject, or you had not. Of course,
some people mastered the subject elegantly; but mastery and elegance
are different. Very efficient method.
If you think about
it, you realize that army schools--and those in the other military
services--are in the life-and-death business, and they can't afford to
produce mediocre students because lives really are at stake. So
they try to ensure that every student masters the subject. The
army sent me to Fort Gordon to learn how to repair radios in six
months. The curriculum was divided into one-week segments, and
there was a proficiency test every Friday afternoon. If you
passed the test you went on to the next week's instruction. If
you didn't pass, you repeated that week. If you didn't pass after
two or three weeks, you were transferred to the next less difficult
school--so as not to waste the training you had already received.
3. College: almost
loss, except for one seminar in modern poetry in which the prof knew
little more at the outset than the students did. A good course because
the prof sat back and encouraged all six of us to discover for
ourselves, right along with him. A collaboration that included the
teacher. We didn't learn FROM the prof, but WITH him.
I had nine
different English professors in college (Bomberger, Robert Russell,
Roger Rollin, the old "in good time" guy, Mrs. Russell, Brubaker,
Lawrence, Gerry Enscoe, Nelson Francis).
Three of them
were especially memorable. Robert Russell, a Rhodes
Scholar and captain of the Yale wrestling team had been blind since
about age five. Roger Rollin was full of boundless energy and
enthusiasm for 17th century English lit. Gerry Enscoe was the one
who ran that modern poetry seminar, and he marched in the first
anti-discrimination demonstration I heard of.
Rollin was the
most likeable of the three. He was devoted to his
subject and his students--but he lectured the whole hour, gave
difficult examinations, and marked up every square inch of our papers
with red ink, pointing out every error he could find and only rarely
writing anything constructive.
Russell was by
far the most daunting. His method in his
introduction to poetry course was to assign for each class meeting 20
or 30 pages of poems, of
which each student was to write an explication of one. In class,
Russell would call upon a student to read his explication aloud and
then would call for discussion. There were no lectures at all
that I remember. I learned a great deal about poetry in that
course, but it was an ordeal because Russell would cut even the best
explications to shreds and everyone was terrified of him.
lectured, usually brilliantly, in a modern poetry class--about
65 students--that he thought was too large for discussion. But it
was in his small Modern Poetry seminar that for the first and only time
as a student
I found myself in a collaborative learning environment. It was
very difficult--like Russell's intro to poetry course, but the
atmosphere was supportive, where in Russell's course it had been rather
like running the gauntlet every morning. Enscoe invariably chose
poems he didn't understand for us to analyze, and he would get really
excited when we managed insights into them.
4. I got only one
bit of good
advice on teaching: Never lie to students. If I didn't know something,
SAY so-and then go out and try to find the answer.
advice came not from a teacher, but from a journalist, Harry Heintzen,
who was helping with the orientation of the 1962 cohort of the Teachers
for West Africa Program run by Elizabethtown College and funded by the
Hershey (Chocolate) Foundation. TWAP's purpose was to find
American teachers for high schools and colleges in Nigeria, Ghana, and
Sierra Leone and provide for their transportation. The schools
would pay their salaries. TWAP predated the Peace Corps and
ultimately was closed because the Peace Corps was a huge organization
and had the budget to pay all of the volunteers' expenses.
Harry Heintzen had lived in several third world countries and was
supposed to help us learn how to cope. His advice about never
lying was almost incidental, but it was very good advice. Without
it, we might have been tempted to see ourselves as important--as experts and therefore
a more advanced species than our students and their compatriots.
It came as part of a long story about arriving in a country and
everything going wrong. We all called it "The Story" and were
amused that it came true for each of us, if not in every detail, at
least in general terms.
5. MBHS: Look for
not weaknesses. Affirmation not negation.
and I (just married!) were sent to MBHS--Methodist Boys' High
School--in Lagos, Nigeria. MBHS was a well known and relatively
prestigious day school. The president of the country, Nnamde
Azikiwe, was one of its "old boys," and of the 1600 or so applicants
who took the annual entrance exam, only 65 were admitted.
About one fourth of the faculty were British; the others,
Nigerian. All were brilliant--although it was some time before we
understood that because they treated us with much more respect than we
I was assigned to teach English language and literature.
Eventually I began to notice that the other English teachers went about
their work very differently than I did. Like my own teachers, I
went about finding all of a student's errors. I looked for
mistakes and pointed them out, every one. How else, I thought,
would they ever learn to do things right? And when I graded a
test, like my own teachers I counted up the "wrongs" and subtracted
them from 100--because that was more efficient than counting the more
My British and British trained colleagues, on the other hand, seemed to
work all backwards. When they began to read a student's
composition, its value in their minds was zero. As they found its
strengths, its value increased. In the end, they counted up all
I converted each student's work to a percentage--an abstraction.
They simply added up the student's strengths and avoided the
What's the difference, you ask? Well. I was of a negative,
fault-finding orientation. They were affirmative, looking for
strengths. It was all the difference in the world!
When you're looking for weaknesses, that's mostly all you can see in
everything. And the other way around when you're looking for
learning again. In TEFL, there's only one goal: help as many
students as possible to learn as much English as possible. No grades.
May be proficiency tests.
Barcelona, Carol and I lucked into full-time jobs teaching spoken
English at the North American Institute, a bi-national center supported
jointly by a local group and the USIA. The Institute's entire
curriculum was clearly aimed at helping students learn English.
Grades and fault-finding were officially irrelevant there.
Was that successful? Judge for yourself: About ten years later I
was teaching at Missouri State University (when it was still called
SMSU). One day I ambled into the English department office and
found the head secretary chatting with a young woman. Something
struck me as unusual about the young woman's accent--was she from
Philidelphia? No, maybe Camden. Definitely south of New
York. Finally I had to ask: "Where are you from?"
"Oh, I'm from Spain," she said.
"No, really. Philly?"
She laughed. "Barcelona, actually."
"But you sound like you were born in the States. How long have
you been here?"
"I mean in America."
"Yes," she said. "Three days. I flew to New York and then
came directly here."
And yes, she had learned English at the Institute. Said she
hadn't known two words before enrolling there.
7. O'Rafferty H. S.:
not slow at all--but had learned slowness!
Barcelona, I taught at a high school in Lansing, Michigan, for two
years. The first year it was a very typical high school, with
three academic tracks. They were called A, B, and C, but everyone
knew they were really smart, average, and slow. I had classes
from all three tracks.
Now, by that time I had been able to do some thinking about how
different people learn and teach. So I wasn't doing much of the
traditional English teacher stuff in my classes. When I had to
give tests, I tried to ask questions that would help the students make
sense on their own of what they knew and what they could do. I
was more interested in how they thought problems through than whether
they knew some arcane facts that weren't important in themselves.
And so my great discovery at that school was that I couldn't tell the
tracks apart--except that the "slow" track kids generally thought more
perceptively and incisively than the "smart" track kids did.
The second year, the school was one of the first Model Schools, and it
did away with the tracks. In the English department, we went
further--did away with the grade levels and let 10th, 11th, and 12th
grade students choose whatever classes they wanted to take, so the ages
were all mixed up. Then we couldn't tell the ages apart, except for a few who
were early or late maturers.
So when we stopped making assumptions about students and stereotyping
them, all of a sudden they all began to blossom and enjoy coming to
The principal supported that experiment and has told me many times
(we're still in touch) how pleased he was with it and how the students
prospered. But the first semester he balked at offering a
Shakespeare course--thought nobody would want to take it, and that
would mess up the schedule. Finally the teacher who wanted to
teach it got him to agree to offer it before the normal school
day. It was over-enrolled. The next semester he moved it to
the regular school time and kept it there.
I also noticed that the students expected to see lots of red ink on
their work when I returned it. The more red, the more it was like
wearing a purple heart for being wounded in combat. I thought
that school should be exciting, but a place of danger, so I began
experimenting with other colors of ink and from time to time asked my
students' opinions of them. Eventually, we all decided that green
was by far the best color. It was the color of "go", not stop or
blood. And it was easy to read on almost every shade of paper.
8. MSU: Best
visited--no fear. I was the only learner in the room. Worst course:
Barry Gross's: everyone else hated me.
did graduate work at Michigan State, beginning with a year miscast as a
Ph.D. student in anthropology. The anthropologists were good to
me--gave me a desk in an office, even though I had never taken a single
anthro course before showing up there. I wandered in late one
afternoon, talked for half an hour with a guy who happened to be in his
office, and they let me in. Cool guys, anthropologists.
I learned about structural analysis in cultural anthropology
courses. That's maybe more complicated that we want to deal with
right now, other than to say that it involves seeing connections and
similarities and patterns in social systems that to the uninitiated
appear random and disparate.
And in a physical anthro class I learned that some anthropologists were
"splitters" and the rest were "lumpers." The splitters argued
that there were some 54 or 55 races of h. sapiens sapiens. The
lumpers said there were just us--all
of us in the same one race, with lots of variations.
I discerned that splitters couldn't do structural analysis worth a
hoot. And it occured to me that most teachers in any discipline
By the spring quarter I had realized that I didn't have the right stuff
to be an anthropologist. Anthropology texts have the best titles
in the world--From Ape to Angel,
for example--but I couldn't force myself to read the clotted prose in
So I decided to check out the English department's offerings.
THE BEST COURSE
On the first day of classes I showed up outside the door of a room in
which a course on Hemingway was to meet. When the prof arrived, a
grizzled-looking guy named Henson, I asked if I could visit the class
that day. He scowled at me and grumbled something that I took for
I didn't know then that the grad students all were terrified of Henson
because he did not, as the expression goes, suffer fools gladly.
Hell, he didn't suffer fools, period.
So I sat quietly in the back of the room and listened to him talk about
Hemingway. And he was delightful! He had made connections
that I'd contemplated only vaguely, and he was able to speak about them
clearly and cogently. He was a lumper.
The real grad students all busied themselves with writing down every
word they could catch. They were grinds. And they were
splitters. They wouldn't look at him. They feared him, and
he despised them. Me, I just sat there in back, loving it.
So he talked to me the whole hour.
I came back for the next class--didn't sign up to audit the course,
just showed up every time. He knew I wasn't on his class list and
that I was just coming for the fun of it. I read everything he
assigned and everything he recommended and other things as well.
He assigned a paper every week, but I didn't write them. When he
handed the papers back to the greasy grinds--well, he didn't hand them,
he flung them--they cringed and cowered, and I could see their faces go
pale when the saw the lousy grades.
And so for the entire quarter I sat in back and he talked to me.
I never said a word--I wasn't supposed to be there, after all--but we
had a two-way conversation every day. He could see that I
understood what he was saying and was delighted with his insights and
the connections he made. He knew I got it. The others might
as well have stayed home. It was just Clyde Henson and me in that
It was the best course I've ever taken, for two principal
reasons: One, it was the right course for me at that time--I was
interested in the subject. Two, I didn't have to sweat the grade,
so I was free to explore the subject and my own mind.
THE WORST COURSE
So I transferred into the English department. Although I had
talked myself into anthro in half an hour, despite never having taken a
single anthropology course as an undergrad, getting into English turned
out to be somewhat exasperating. I had an AB in English from a
reputable college, but the head of the MSU English graduate program
wouldn't approve my admission--wouldn't even talk to me when I showed
up at his office--until I had taken the Graduate Record
Examination. That annoyed me, so I took the test and scored in
the top 1%. When I went back to the guy's office he came right
out and swelled all up. "Well, Don," he said, like we were old
friends, despite never having met me before. "I'm so glad you've
decided to come and join us." Horsefeathers. (I should say
here that a friend of mine who knew him well has an entirely opposite
opinion of him and is probably right.)
I took some courses and they went okay, but not "top 1%" well, and I
became discouraged. That's putting it mildly: I decided that the
next quarter would determine whether I stayed in grad school, or tried
some other line of work.
Then I got into Barry Gross's course on F.Scott Fitzgerald and the Twenties. It met once
a week for ten weeks. Each week Gross assigned a novel or a group
of stories for us to read and assigned several students to write papers
about it. Each student was to write two of those papers and,
later in the course, a much longer, more substantial paper.
My first paper was to be about a Hemingway novel, A Farewell to Arms (which was
for the "Twenties" part of the course). I read it in a few days
and then started to write the paper.
I knew this was going to be IT. Either this paper came out well,
or I would quit school. So I holed up in our Ford Econoline van
that I had fitted out for camping and wrote and tore up and wrote and
tore up again. I ate pounds of Hershey bars. Came in late
at night to sleep a few hours and then went back out to the van and
wrote and tore and wrote.
Eventually, my whole life to that point sort of coalesced and focused
on the novel. I applied the techniques of structural analysis
that I'd encountered in anthro. Clyde Henson's discussion of the
novel helped me considerably, but more to give me confidence than
anything else, because the focus of this assignment was rather
different from his. After a while the novel and the ideas I'd
been mulling over for years--all of that came together.
The finished paper was some eight pages long. The first third of
them didn't even mention the novel or Hemingway. Instead
they established a general overview from which to view the novel.
The middle third examined the novel's particular details. The
final third brought together the general view and the particulars and
led to an insecapable conclusion about the novel. Later I
realized that the paper's structure was that of a syllogism, with a
general premise, a particular premise, and a conclusion. That was
essentially the standard essay format that all English teachers used to
talk about, but that I had never quite made sense to me. It
had an introduction ending with a thesis, a main body, and a
conclusion, but with them
on three different levels of specificity. The introduction was
the general part, and the conclusion was a meld of the introduction and
the main body and moving further on beyond the specific subject, that
particular novel, showing it in the new perspective of the general
I felt good about the paper, but
also apprehensive because it was so different from other academic
papers I'd ever read or written. I turned it in and waited to see
what Gross's reaction would be.
Now, this is where things turned
When class met the next week,
Gross handed back the papers.
If you've ever gone to school you
know what happened next. When a paper comes back with a high
grade, the student looks at it and lays it on top of everything else,
and then glances around the room to gauge the others' grades. But
if the grade is low, the student slips it under his or her books and
looks down, focusing on nothing in particular. It's always the
same, in every classroom on earth.
And these students all slipped the paper under and looked down.
Mine was the last paper Gross handed back, and I was dreading it.
But there on the top of the first page was an "A" in his handwriting
and a brief note.
Because Gross said, "The best of the papers was Don Maxwell's.
Mister Maxwell, would you please read it aloud, and then we'll all
Yikes. So I read the paper aloud and then Gross called for
But there was no
discussion. Nobody had a thing to say, not a word. Finally,
Gross discussed the paper, himself. Asked me questions about it
and I answered. He asked questions of the others but got no
responses. They all just looked down at their desks.
It was ugly.
But that wasn't the bad part. I knew I had to top myself with the
next paper, so I went back to the van and the Hershey bars. But
this time I analyzed the first paper. That's when I realized that
it was structured like a syllogism. And that showed me how to do
it again with a different novel.
Okay, now comes the bad part: Gross chose my second paper as the
one to be read and discussed in class. And my third paper.
Mine were the only papers
discussed in class those weeks. (In the other weeks, every paper
for that week was discussed and usually the class was dismissed
early.) I had found the formula for the A+ paper in Barry Gross's
course, and I ground them out, one after another, in that course and in
the others I took at MSU.
The other students hated me. I knew it. And I'm sure they
learned nothing in that course but how to hate me.
On the other hand, I learned
a lot in Barry Gross's course: I learned how to write a
guaranteed A paper. (That was both good and bad.) And I
learned how to make students hate themselves and each other and the
9. Do I Make myself
teacher I had at MSU was Russell Nye. Nye and a guy (Brown?) at
Bowling Green University established popular culture as a serious
academic discipline, but he was really an Engish teacher with a grand
historical bent. He was interested in everything. The first
time I ever talked with him was in a gas station near the campus, where
we had an interesting conversation about SAABs and their two-cycle
engines. He had a son who raced one. I knew who he was
because Carol had had a course with him when she was an undergrad.
I had a graduate lit course with him--Cooper, Melville, and
company--and on the very first day I noticed that he often said, "Do I
make myself clear?"
"Do I make myself
clear?" It was a very odd question. I'd never heard anyone
else ever ask it, and it puzzled me. At first I thought it was
just a pedantic way of saying, "Do you understand?" Or sort of a
soft way of saying, "Are there any questions?" Those are often
questions used to put students in their place. "Do you
understand?" puts the burden on the students and is likely to suggest
that the students aren't smart enough to understand. "Are there
any questions?" is even worse--because it essentially says, "There
shouldn't be any questions because I've explained it all very clearly,
and if you have a question it's because you're too dumb to get it."
But when Nye said "Do I make myself clear?" he always looked as though
he actually wanted to know, and his voice sounded sincere. It was
just such an odd phrasing that I had to stop and think about it.
Eventually it came clear to me: He meant It's my responsibility to explain this
clearly. It wasn't a challenge to us, or a put-down.
He wanted to know if he was doing his job. What a guy!
And what a revelation to me. When I went back to teaching, I
wanted to ask that question, but it seemed artificial to me. (It
might have to Nye, too, for all I know.) It was awkward and
seemed slightly affected--even though Nye himself was anything but
affected, despie his official title, Distinguised Professor. So I
experimented with variations on the theme. I wanted to take the
responsibility, but also wanted to sound like an ordinary guy, like
In the end I settled on "Does that make sense?"
It wasn't quite what I wanted, but at least it focused on what I had
said and not on the students. I've probably asked that question a
million times by now. But thanks to Russell Nye, I never asked,
"Do you understand?" or "Are there any questions?" (I encountered
him in Iowa about ten years later and was able to thank him for his
thoughtfulness. He seemed pleased.)
10. On the road.
Near the end of my sojourn at
Michigan State, an odd event occurred that changed me maybe more than
anything else I've ever experienced. The story is "Are You All Right?"
I hope you'll come back here after reading
it--so it will open in a new window, leaving this one intact.
requirements but to write.
collecting an MA in English, I gave up on the academic biz. I had
written so many A+ papers that I was burned out. Little wisps of
grey smoke issued from my ears. What to do this time? Well,
I got myself admitted to a MFA program in creative writing at
UNC-Greensboro, and they gave me the Randall Jarrell Poetry
Fellowship. For the fiction manuscript I had sent them.
Why that's important here is that the MFA faculty's philosophy was to
encourage students, but not impose on them or mold them into some image
or other. I found that entirely liberating. For the most
part, the courses had me writing what I wanted to write and the classes
were for feedback from the instructor and the other students.
But the most important thing was this: You can't grade art, and
you can't grade experiments that might not work out well but that lead
the artist on to something further. So the faculty didn't grade anything. We ended up
with grades for the course, but I suspect that everybody who was
clearly working got an A, and
the few who weren't working probably didn't.
Other than creative writing, the best course I took there was an
independent reading course for which I met with the instructor twice,
wrote no papers, but did insist on turning in an annotated bibliography
of my readings for it. That course was on a par with Encoe's,
Henson's, and Gross's courses.
Tutorials--individual, but too intense, too hard on me. But mainly, the
students' focus became ME, not writing and their writing.
I also had a half-time assistantship at UNC-G, teaching regular English
courses--freshman comp, modern American drama, and European lit.
the comp courses I decided that it might be good to have an individual
conference with each student about her writing. The chairman of
English department allowed me to omit one of the three class hours per
week in exchange for a half hour conference with each student every
other week. In that half-hour I read the student's composition
to her, commented on it as I went along, and then we'd discuss it and
her writing in general and arrive at a grade for the comp.
That method worked pretty well, but it put a lot of pressure on the
students and keeping to the schedule of conferences was demanding for
me. (It took about the same amount of my time as I would have had
to put into the third class meeting and reading papers alone.)
The main problem with it, however,
was that it put me in the position
of being the sole reader, so the students tended to write for me,
rather than gaining the better experience of writing for a broader
13. SMS: Honors
composition--positive feedback only.
next teaching job was at what is now Missouri State University.
(It was then called Southwest Missouri State University.) One
semester the head of English assigned me to teach a new, accelerated
freshman comp course for academically gifted and high-achiever
students. They were to get two semesters of credits--six--for a
single semester course that met only three hours a week.
So I figured I'd better do something new for those high-pwered
Okay. By that time I had encountered all of the educational
experiences I've described above and was ready to put them all
together. The accelerated course was the catalyst.
I set out to do two things principally:
1. Not grade individual pieces of writing.
2. Give positive feedback only.
grading was easy for me, but hard on the students, who were used to
getting A's all the time and kept asking how they were doing in the
Giving positive feedback--that was really hard for me. I
was, after all, an English teacher.
My job, I felt, was to point out every error so that the student could
learn not to repeat it. Besides, I was good at processing
freshman comp papers by then. In five minutes or less I could
tear through it, marking mistakes and scribbling "frag" and "K" and
"logic" in the margins--pointing out enough errors that no student
would ever complain about the low grade.
Positive feedback, on the other hand, meant that I had to look for--and
point out--strengths in the writing. Zowie! And I had to do
it in such a way that the student actually learned something from my
It was clear that I couldn't get
away with insincere comments.
"Excellent," for example, was meaningless because it's an absolute
You might write "excellent" on one of Shakespeare's plays or
sonnets and it would mean something. But to apply it to a
freshman composition--especially when the textbook was full of
Shakespeare-quality writing samples--was worse than meaningless.
It would be phony and inadequate.
The first paper I "graded" in this way took me nearly two hours.
I had to write rough drafts of everything on scrap paper, cutting out
the negations and trying to get the affirmations to be meaningful and
And sincere. I found that honesty was the key to the whole thing.
If I couldn't say "excellent," for example, I could say, "I like this
part best." I like this part best would be honest--even if I
didn't like the composition very well at all, I could like a particular
part best. And if I
said so, then maybe the student would try to do that same sort of thing
in the next composition.
What about the errors? Well, the errors that seem to bother many
teachers the most are mis-spellings and goofy punctuation. But
they aren't composition
errors at all. They're just minor editing matters that any writer
will want to clean up eventually, but they aren't really the focus of
the course. They're inconsequential, for the most part, unless
the teacher needs to justify assigning the paper a low grade. And
they tend to take care of themselves if we teachers don't make a big
deal of them.
You probably don't agree with that at. all.
Period. But it's true.
(A few years later I worked out a two-step method for responding to
most student compositions. One step was to say what I liked best about
the composition. The other was to ask the writer a question about
it--a question that I hoped would lead the student to discover
something she or he hadn't yet figured out. But it had to be a
question I didn't know the answer to. There's more about this in
my remarks about the freshman composition course I had in my final
semester of teaching.)
And what was the students' reaction to this? For the first half
semester, many of them complained that I wasn't telling them what
mistakes they had made. By the end of the semester, almost all of
them said that they approved of the method and had enoyed the course.
There's one more thing: Before that semester began I had decided
that I was going to get out of teaching. I was burned out--burnt
to a crisp from telling people what they were doing wrong. I was
an excellent fault-finder, and I hated it.
Because of that semester, I lasted another 25 years.
14. The Community College
Movement and JSRCC
new experience I had at Missouri State led me onward to my next
teaching job and liberated me further from conventional academic
strictures. I noticed that many of the most interesting
students were transfers from a community college. That surprised
because until then I had the idea that community colleges were for
people too dumb to get into a real college. But I soon realized
that the stereotype didn't match the reality.
In many ways the transfer students reminded me of the "slow" track
students back at the high school in Michigan. They were just as
bright as the high-achieving accelerated comp course students, but
tended to think more originally. Also, they were slightly older
and seemed to have a better idea of their own direction in life.
So I got interested in the community college movement, and eventually
landed a job teaching at a comprehensive community college in
Virginia. Not only was the teaching experience delightful, the
college was flexible and supported innovation better than most
traditional four-year colleges do.
PART 3. HOW THESE EXPERIENCES BECAME A
few years later I received a substantial grant from the National
Endowment for the Humanities to participate in The Institute on Writing
at the University of Iowa, to study up on the latest research on
writing and then develop a new type of freshman composition
course. That course was published in Courses for Change in Composition (1984
wrote the original assignments in two months, in a bare office that
once had been a patient's room in a TB sanitarium. The building
had been given to the University of Iowa--it was about ten miles from
the campus, so they used it as a kind of retreat for faculty (and
grantees) who needed peace and quiet in which to think and write.
So the disease was different, but the use was similar: an academic
I thought and wrote, and in the end came up with a series of
inter-related assignments--which I called explorations--that all worked
together, like the lines of a sonnet. The
inter-related assignments progressed as a spiral--a helix--swinging
back around over the previous ones, but at a higher level of complexity
and comprehension. They reflected almost everything I had learned
by then about teaching, all of the things I've mentioned above.
The course was so different from conventional composition courses that
I probably would have taken a lot of flak from my colleagues, except
for the backing of the NIH.
A year later I was invited to teach that course and others in China
(Xi'an Foreign Languages University, 1981-82). It worked as well
Chinese students as it had with Americans.
continued to refine the course every time I taught freshman comp--which
was almost every semester. Or, rather, I tried
to refine it. I wrote alternates for every assignment and added
entirely new ones and left out others from time to time. But the
interesting thing is that nearly every change diminished the course
somehow, and in
the end, after 20 years of modifying and revising, I ended up with
almost the same assignments that were in the original version.
The version of the course you'll find here is from my final semester of
teaching. It happened to be the fall of 2001, so there were some
new assignments about the 9/11 airliner attacks.
can find it here: (Coming
soon) Invitations to Write: College
(I also used the basic philosophy and techniques in literature courses,
one of which I'll eventually post on this site.)
P.S. I hope you'll share your ideas about this in the
Miscellany and Talking At Teachers.
"Hasty Miscellany on Teaching Writing"