“I just want to be able to be satisfied when they can write a paragraph.”

One of my fellow TA’s said that, as she explained how much she was looking forward to teaching remedial writing classes. I wish I was that easily amused. Each day when I go to class I think about how difficult writing is, and how difficult it is to explain it. Sure, there are the basic evaluative criteria, firmly entrenched since 1863, of unity, mass and coherence, but I really want to get more than that from people. I want them to think.

It’s been incredible to watch some of my students grow. At first, most of them didn’t seem to care about the quality of their writing. I think grading the first essay hard was a quick way to fix that. Welcome to college. By the time we got to the second essay, most of the conversational artifacts and persistent mechanical problems were taken care of. While they were largely clueless about citation styles and such, the overall level of mechanics was strong. Now that I’ve started to read the third assignment, I’m proud of most of them. While there are still some issues, harping on the component structure of the classical essay really seemed to work. The essays are really starting to convey unity, mass, and coherence. There should be no problem in evaluations for these kids, they’ve got the basics coming together.

I think an open revision policy is also a big plus. Only a few students are turning in shoddy work at the deadline, knowing that they can redo it. Mostly, it’s the borderline and below folks that this helps the most. Many of them have turned in several revisions, trying to make the best grade possible. What matters is how far they get in the end. I have no intention of grading on a relative scale; I think that this is a cheat which just passes the problem on to the next teacher. Considering my class will be the last writing class most of them take, I think it’s important to have them writing at least at junior or senior level by the time they leave, even if it is a “freshman” class. But that’s where the real work is.

Writing at the upper level is less about mechanics than it is about critical skills. I learned most of those in the study of literature, and sadly many of these students will opt out of World Literature in favor of Anthropology, which fits the same slot in the curriculum. So, besides writing, I think it’s a big part of the job to teach people to read.

I had my students do that today. I’ve figured out the correct factor, I think, for allowing in class time for reading. If I multiply how long it takes me to read something at a median rate by three, then about 75% of the class will finish in that amount of time. Out of about 16 students today, four finished early, and eight were done right about the cut-off time. I could tell by the expressions on their faces where they were, as much as anything else. A few kept nervously checking if I was watching, as if to see if they could just blow it off. No dice. I thought it was an important thing to read.

It was One Step at a Time: Japanese Women Walking from the latest issue of the Journal of Mundane Behavior. I chose it for several reasons. First, it displays a constant questioning of presumption. The author starts with a mundane question about the way that Japanese women walk, and continually evaluates the real worth of the question she’s asking. Along the way, it turns from casual research into deeper statistical research about the level of freedom for women in Japan. It doesn’t bog down in abstract numbers, and much of the data doesn’t really support her conclusion. Her conclusion is a culturally inclusive one, that points at the difficulty of evaluating things based on arbitrary scales. In the end, she decides that her primary question wasn’t the right one at all. It doesn’t matter how people chose to walk. But it makes a great sustained metaphor out of what begins as a mundane investigation. Crafty writing, and tolerant world view. What more could you want?

Guys, as a general observation, don’t care for this one much. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the discussion of platform shoes that opens it. But who cares? It’s the writing style, and the fact that you can construct good writing on any subject that matters. Even something as simple as the way people walk.

The ability to do that can’t be easily tested, but it can be easily proved. I suspect that most of my students will prove themselves to be good writers when this is all over, regardless of what subject they chose.

Writing paragraphs is hard, particularly since there is much controversy about what one even is! How about this definition, for starters:

The paragraph can be described very roughly as an autochthonous pattern in prose discourse, identified originally by application of logical, physical, rhythmical, tonal, formal, and other rhetorical criteria, set off from adjacent patterns by indentations, and commended thereby to the reader as a noteworthy stadium of discourse. Though all good paragraphs are stadia, not all stadia are paragraphs. Many must exist merely as emergent possibilities, potential paragraphs (as well as smaller units) dissolved in the flow of discourse. (Paul C. Rogers, A Discourse-Centered Rhetoric of the Paragraph)

I’d rather teach people to write, rather than how to write paragraphs. Paragraphs are too confusing.

1 thought on “Teaching”

  1. ‘sentences are not emotional and… paragraphs are’— Gertrude Stein, ‘Plays’

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