Talking at Teachers

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. 

The 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.


I'm not going to tell you what I'm doing in English 111 because . . . you wouldn't understand and would focus on surface details only

This seems rather imperious, but I managed to soften it considerably without changing the meaning. 

They wouldn't have 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.

But see?  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.

Even 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.

But 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.

So 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.

Actually, I knew perfectly well what I wanted to say.  The problem was that--  well, Emily Dickinson pinned it down nicely in a poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --

I didn't have time for Circuit.  So I was going to risk the Lightning.

A testimonial. OK, I'm here to testify. (Are you a true believer?)

51 years of [my] education in 15 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.

I'll 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.

For 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 it.

That 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.)

This 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 anything.

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.

First, let's get a few things out in the open:

Revolution--in observation and documentation of how people write and how they can be helped to write better.  Not in teaching.

There 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.

We misunderstand each other. Never assume!

Still and always good advice.  Phil Jackson used to wear this cap:  

Phil Jackson cap: Never Assume

("Never Assume--it makes an Ass of u and me.")

Unfortunately, almost all teachers assume that what they experienced as students was good.  Maybe it was good for them, but that's no guarantee that it would be good for all students. And in fact, it's clear that there 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. 

We 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 all students studied got A's or F's, 15% got B's or D's, and the rest got C's. 

ut for nearly a 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
don't master the course. 

That is, the school
prevents them 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.

Most of my teachers wasted my time, and at least half of them did much more harm than good.

I'm talking about basic principles. You're probably thinking about derivative details, surface features.

In 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.

That's 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...

They also generally don't need instruction--to be given answers.  Just the right question now and then.

The "revolution" in the teaching of writing never happened.  It was instead a revolution in the 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.

There are NO basic writers in colleges. They're all in kindergarten.  Even our developmental writing 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 like FORTRAN or C.  Or Chinese.  Then you'll be a basic writer for a while


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 colleagues did.

1.  Elementary, jr.h., h.s.:  Devoted school-mistress teachers.  But mostly negative feedback. I was called an underachiever because I got high scores on some standardized tests, but didn't get high grades in school.  So the school kept telling 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 me that 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 mostly negative.

2.  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 total 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, Darryl 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.

Enscoe 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.

That 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 strengths, not weaknesses. Affirmation not negation.

Carol 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 deserved.

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 numerous "rights." 

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 the strengths. 

I converted each student's work to a percentage--an abstraction.  They simply added up the student's strengths and avoided the abstraction.

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 strengths.

6.  Instituto: Mastery 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.

In 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?"

"Three days."

"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.: "Slow" track not slow at all--but had learned slowness!

After 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 school.

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 course--one I visited--no fear. I was the only learner in the room. Worst course: Barry Gross's: everyone else hated me.

I 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 were splitters.

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 them. 

So I decided to check out the English department's offerings. 

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 "Very well."

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 class.

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.

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 introduction.

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 ugly. 

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.

That's good--right? 


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 discuss it."

Yikes.  So I read the paper aloud and then Gross called for discussion.

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 course.

9.  Do I Make myself clear?

Another exceptional 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 myself.

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.

11.  MFA--UNC-G: Support. Few requirements but to write.

After 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.

12.  TEACHING-UNC-G: 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.  In the comp courses I decided that it might be good to have an individual conference with each student about her writing.  The chairman of the 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 aloud 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 audience.

13.  SMS: Honors composition--positive feedback only.

My 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 students. 

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.

Not 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 course.

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 comments. 

It was clear that I couldn't get away with insincere comments.  "Excellent," for example, was meaningless because it's an absolute judgement.  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 useful. 

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 English 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

Another 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 me 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.


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 Boynton/Cook Publishers).

I 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 sanatarium.

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 with Chinese students as it had with Americans.

I 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 most 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.

You can find it here:  (Coming soon) Invitations to Write:  College Composition I

(I also used the basic philosophy and techniques in literature courses, one of which I'll eventually post on this site.)

=Don Maxwell

P.S.  I hope you'll share your ideas about this in the forum:  Hasty Miscellany and Talking At Teachers.

"Hasty Miscellany on Teaching Writing"