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Stepping It Up

This blog entry is in response to a June 6, 2008, article from The Atlantic entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” In the article, the author, Professor X, shares his thoughts and feelings about his latest teaching assignments.

As Professor X puts it, he is employed at a college of last resort. Some might find that turn of phrase amusing, and that he teaches in the basement at such a college—well, ha! ha!, it can’t get any worse than that, can it? (Actually, he teaches night classes at two colleges.) Maybe it’s the mood I’m in, but I don’t appreciate the cleverness, nor do I appreciate the tone of the article.

Professor X feels that his efforts to teach the introductory writing and literature courses are futile exercises, at best. And if we are to believe him, most of his students don’t belong anywhere near a college campus. (Some of them “can’t write a coherent sentence.”) Yet he, the dutiful instructor, slogs along in this Sisyphean struggle, one night class after another for 15 weeks.

It’s Professor X’s approach to writing (or lack of one) that really galls me. He explains that, according to the course outline, students should demonstrate the ability to write the following forms: comparison/contrast essay, argumentative essay, process analysis, and the research paper. Now there’s a line up of assignments that will surely inspire struggling writers. (Professor X claims he has no wiggle room here: The schools demand that he teach these forms, and his professional integrity prevents him from doing otherwise.)

The professor also reports that he “discusses thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject.” What better advice could someone give to students “who can’t write a coherent sentence”? He also notes that they use a textbook that devotes “pages and pages to the composition of the comparison-and-contrast essay.” Just what these students need.

I’m going to ignore his approach to research—other than to say that he wasn’t much help to the older returning student who is the focus of his discussion. (I’m being kind here.)

What the professor needs is an introductory course of his own, one that helps him become a writing teacher. I recommend that he read some of the old standbys in writing pedagogy, including Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray, Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow, and Writing to be Read by Ken Macrorie.

All three of these writers/instructors know that helping struggling writers improve their abilities is a matter of getting them to write regularly (as in every day) about the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are important to them—and then working with the students, as a mentor, free from the gravitational pull of assessment. Invariably, if students become comfortable with the act of writing, and they write about issues that are important to them, they will, throughout the semester, improve as writers.

In case the professor wonders how this type of writing will help students deal with real academic writing, he should read Learning to Write/Writing to Learn by John S. Mayher, Nancy Lester, and Gordon M. Pradl. In my blog entry “Of Personal Importance,” I refer to these authors and their belief that personal writing can be “the jumping off point—the way in” to expository and persuasive writing.”

Professor X had a total of 15 students, and he failed 9 of them. Who can feel good about that? Wouldn’t it behoove the man to rethink what he is doing? I say forget the course outline, meet the students on their own terms, and go from there. What does anyone in that situation really have to lose? In the end, some students may fail, but only if they haven’t tried. Let’s also remember that the schools did admit these students. Don’t the schools have an obligation to provide appropriate instruction?

I realize that college isn’t for everyone, and that some of the professor’s students may have been in over their heads. Yet, I believe that he could have, and should have, done so much more to help in the time he had with them.

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